With barrage of letters and online complaints against "social enterprises" running publicly-funded hawker centres, Director of NEA's Hawker Centres Division, Ivy Ong, personally wrote to ST Forum today (22 Oct) in her attempt to calm public's nerve.
She wrote to say that she agreed with several ST Forum writers that hawker centres are to "provide affordable food and a means to make a decent livelihood for hawkers".
She said that extensive consultations were carried out with a wide range of stakeholders before the "social enterprise" model was introduced to run hawker centres. She said, "The Hawker Centres Public Consultation Panel recommended that new hawker centres operate on a not-for-profit basis by social enterprises or cooperatives."
"Such operators would leverage their expertise in F&B and lease management, and introduce new ideas to achieve the social mission of hawker centres. For the model to work, the operators have some flexibility to employ different business strategies, with the Government setting certain key parameters, such as control on food prices and costs charged to stallholders," she added.
"Hence, three years ago, the National Environment Agency started piloting the model by appointing socially-conscious enterprises to manage the first two new hawker centres," she shared. "There are seven such (new) hawker centres now, out of 114."
The operators help to ensure affordable food, high standards of cleanliness, vibrancy, and introduce productivity measures to help hawkers cope with manpower constraints, she said.
Defending the so-called social enterprise operators, Ms Ong said that the objectives of providing affordable food in a clean and comfortable environment to the public "have been largely met in the new hawker centres".
"The operators have also introduced measures that benefit stallholders and patrons, such as shuttle services, family-friendly weekend activities, offers for senior citizens, and 'hawker-preneurship' programmes for new hawkers," she added.
She also said that a key challenge is the long hours and hard work put up by hawkers.
"The operators overcome this through centralised productivity measures, and e-payment services," she opined, never mind if some operator has mandated that hawkers must actually keep their stall open 24 hours.
Ms Ong also echoed what Senior Minister of State Amy Khor said on Fri (19 Oct) about taking actions against errant operators. "Its implementation is at its early stage, and needs time to evolve," she said. "NEA will continue to take in feedback and work with the operators to sustain the hawker trade and culture."
Petition started against Social Enterprises running hawker centres
Meanwhile, an online petition called, End "Social Enterprise Hawker Centers" NOW!, has started wanting the government to stop letting social enterprises (some owned by grassroots leaders) run the public-funded hawker centres:
The petition calls NEA to:
- Abolish all these so-called "social enterprise hawker centers" with immediate effect as they are run in a manner detrimental to the welfare of the hawkers
- The NEA should run these hawker centers themselves along the lines of the old hawker center model
- The NEA should also allow the hawkers to opt out of the cashless payment system as it creates cashflow problems for them
- Hawkers should also be allowed to employ their own dishwashers instead of being forced to subscribe to centralized washing if they find it more affordable to do so
- To keep food costs affordable, the NEA should charge stall rental well below market rates if the government still wants to run hawker centers as social enterprises
"We are calling upon everyone to show solidarity with the hawkers by boycotting these 'social enterprise hawker centers'. Hit these greedy operators where it hurts them most: their pockets," it said.