NEA appoints NTUC to manage hawker centres
Two years ago on 20 Dec, the National Environment Agency (NEA) announced its appointment of NTUC Foodfare as the new managing agent of seven hawker centres, following NEA's observation that the Bedok Interchange Hawker Centre – currently operated by Foodfare since its inception in 2014 – “has worked well”.
The seven include 5 existing hawker centres and 2 new ones:
- 75 Toa Payoh Lorong 5
- 51 Old Airport Road
- 90 Whampoa Drive
- 91/92 Whampoa Drive
- Chong Pang, 104/105 Yishun Ring Road
- Kampung Admiralty, 676 Woodlands Drive 71 (New)
- 110 Pasir Ris Central (New)
The NEA had reportedly also taken into account the positive feedback received from hawkers at the Bedok Interchange Hawker Centre. These included Foodfare’s management approaches, responsiveness to hawker feedback, affordable food and a clean environment.
NEA said in its 2016 press release: “NEA believes that the bundle approach would offer the operator economies of scale and greater flexibility to experiment with new ideas and operational processes to further improve the vibrancy and operational efficiency of the hawker centres."
NTUC Foodfare took control of the 5 existing hawker centres on 1 July last year. Foodfare said subsidised stallholders would continue their current rental rates, while non-subsidised ones would continue to pay the prevailing market rates as assessed by professional valuers.
Operating fees increase for hawkers at Block 90 Whampoa Dr
With stories of unhappy hawkers at Old Airport Road Hawker Centre currently raging online, TOC decided to send a correspondent down to the iconic Whampoa Hawker Centre to find out the situation there.
Many Singaporeans are familiar with Whampoa Hawker Centre. Some of the best-remembered hawker food served there include: Fried Hokkien Mee, Hoover Rojak, Liang Zhao Ji Duck Rice, Fish Head Bee Hoon, Hi Leskmi Nasi Lemak, nasi padang, etc.
Understandably, many were apprehensive speaking to TOC on the issues they have with the new management, stating that nothing is wrong or that there have been no problems with the management*, but several hawkers did tell TOC about the problems they faced under NTUC Foodfare.
As rentals remain the same (for the time being) at this hawker centre, the main bulk of the complaints centered around the spike in prices, particularly the dish collection fees.
Contrary to the other hawker centres run by Foodfare, hawkers in this old hawker centre wash their own dishes and cookware, but rely on the contractor to collect and return the trays and dishes to the stall.
TOC understands from hawkers' accounts that the previous dish-collection contractor charged:
- $300 for drink stalls;
- $360 for stalls that sell noodles; and
- $390 for stalls that sell rice.
With the new dish-collection company appointed by Foodfare, the charges are now:
- $420 for beverage stalls; and
- around $470 for food stalls.
According to one hawker, the difference in price between stalls selling noodles and those selling food with rice is that the latter would likely have more wares to be collected.
Mr Nah, a hawker who runs a fruit stall, said that he had been running his stall for decades under NEA and experienced no issues. However, he grumbled about how the new dish-collection fees are both expensive, and how the contractor is inefficient. He questioned why the tender was given to the new company when the former contractor was willing to do a better job at a lower fee.
Sharing photos that he took, Mr Nah voiced his displeasure over the poor performance of the new contractor appointed by NTUC Foodfare. He added that the hawkers were not consulted by Foodfare with regard to the appointment of the new contractor.
"If the former contractor is willing to do the same work for $300, why are they using this new contractor who does not seem to be doing a better job?" asked Mr Nah.
Showing messages he had sent through WhatsApp, Mr Nah shared that he had raised the matter to NEA on various occasions after Foodfare had failed to take action on the poor performance of the dish-collection company. However, NEA would then pass the matter on to Foodfare, which did not resolve the problem.
A hawker who runs a drink stall, Mr Ng, pointed to a table which has a sign from NEA, urging patrons to return their trays to the tray collection area.
He asked: "If people return the tray, where would it be?" The point that he made was that the trays would be returned to the tray collection area, and that the wares would also be there. The dish-collectors would not return the trays and dishes till they were done with the tables, which does not usually happen until the peak hour is over. As a result, he had to collect the cups from the tray collection area himself in order to have sufficient cups for his customers.
He noted that while it is reasonable for a dish-collection company to be collecting $400 or even $500 dollars, he disagrees when it is done by a company that performs poorly in comparison to a company that had charged at a cheaper rate and had done a better job.
A worker at a noodle stall complained about the attitude of the Foodfare management, noting how the supervisor would often divert the issue whenever it is brought up by the hawkers.
Even takeaway stalls are forced to pay dish collection fees
A hawker who runs a pastry stall shared with TOC that she was asked to pay dish collection fees despite not having any dishes to be collected, as her stall only sells takeaways to customers. Prior to Foodfare's take-over, she did not have to pay any dish-collection fee.
According to her, the management told her that the fees are applied across all stalls, and had subsequently dismissed her protest over the charge. As her stall deals with food, she is cornered into paying a fee of $470 for a service that she does not even use. It just goes to show how inflexible the new management is.
Several other hawkers who had spoken to TOC pointed out that they did not take issues with the dish-collectors themselves, but with the company. Noting that only eight of them are being deployed during lunch time, they argued that it is impossible and unfair to expect eight dish-collectors to manage eighty stalls' dishes and wares, particularly seeing that most of the dish collectors are elderly. In comparison, the previous contractor who charged a lower rate had around 12 staff working during the same period, based on the hawkers' recollection.
Other than dish-collection fees, miscellaneous fees have said to have been increased along with waste disposal for the food stalls. A lady boss of a chicken rice stall shared with TOC that operating fees have doubled since NTUC Foodfare took over. The lady boss said that she is already in her sixties, and so if the current arrangement does not serve her well, she will hand back the stall. Noting that most of the hawkers are of the Pioneer Generation, she questioned if the stalls would be taken over by the younger generation, as it involves hard work but does not pay very well and long working hours including public holidays. Her worker shared that only 20% of the stalls at the hawker centre seem to be doing well, while the rest are barely making money as human traffic dropped significantly over the years.
Payment collected even before any work is carried out
Other than the increase of fees, hawkers also grumbled about the collection of fees, which currently takes place at the start of the month instead of every 10 days practised by the previous contractor. The hawkers expressed displeasure over the fact that payments are collected before the work is done.
There are also non-food stalls situated at the end of the hawker centre. A tailor shop shared that while they are not subjected to the increase of dish-collection fees, the miscellaneous expenses for them have increased doubly to $140. This excludes the daily $1 rubbish disposal fees that the non-food stalls pay.
Mr Nah also shared that the contract from NTUC was only given to him for five minutes, and that he did not know what he signed. He told TOC that many hawkers are seniors and illiterate, with many signing the contract without understanding the terms and conditions stipulated therein. Under the law, this could be a point of contention if ever a hawker challenges NTUC Foodfare in court.
Mr Ng and the aforementioned chicken rice stallholder shared that any food price increase has to be approved by NTUC Foodfare, and that there must be an item that is priced below $3. He asked: "Why does the hawker need to seek the approval from NTUC to increase their food prices? The hawker will not increase prices so much that the customers will not buy from him - it is just market prices at work."
Using an example of the dessert stall beside his, he shared that when the hawker increased 10 cents for the dessert, NTUC made an issue of the matter. "Hawkers have to bear alot of inflation of our raw ingredients and it was just an increase of 10 cents!" exclaimed Mr Ng.
He went on to say: "When NTUC raised the price for the dish-collection fees, did they seek approval from the hawkers?" and noted that NEA never bothered the hawkers other than hygiene issues.
When asked about the transfer of the management by NEA to NTUC, which is said to be a social enterprise, Mr Nah remarked that a lot of costs will be incurred, in comparison to when it was being run by NEA.
"How is it possible that a company operate without profit? Who will pay its workers then?" This sentiment was shared by other hawkers TOC had spoken to, who all agreed that operations were better off when NEA was managing the hawker centre.
They also voiced their concerns over a potential increase in rentals should one day NEA decides to hand over the hawker centre to NTUC in its entirety.
Quoting another chicken stall hawker whom TOC spoke to, it is just a matter of time until such a thing happens, considering that NTUC has already been given half the authority over such hawker centres by the NEA.
*Block 91 and 92 managed by NTUC did not experience the said problems according to hawkers and stall holders. Block 92 houses dry/wet market stalls while hawker stalls at 91 only open from morning to 3 pm. The hawkers shared that the dish collection fees dropped a bit, to around 400 dollars.