Photo: The Telegraph / ALAMY

NEA draws flak for alleged inaction regarding possibly exploitative contractual terms against hawkers by food court operators

Social enterprise hawker centres managed by operators such as NTUC Foodfare and Koufu Group’s subsidiary Hawker Management have become a controversial contemporary topic following a blog post renowned food critic and Makansutra founder K.F. Seetoh that was published in August, which suggested that social enterprise hawker centres are being run by their operators the way private food courts are run.

Publicly funded social enterprise hawker centres have an obligation to “protect the common citizen’s economic meal,” unlike private enterprise food courts where capitalistic market forces reign: KF Seetoh

Renowned food critic and founder of Makansutra K.F. Seetoh himself has made further comments on the social enterprise hawker centre issue.

In a Facebook post last Wednesday (17 Oct), Mr Seetoh highlighted the oppressive terms and conditions stipulated in the contracts that hawkers or stallholders are made to sign, some of which include the condition that their stalls should be operated “24hrs a day with 2 off days,” and “a $250 fine” per day should they decide to not operate the stall on other days without giving “a week’s notice” and obtaining “the managing agent’s approval”.

He added that “a clause that dictates how much vegetables and calories each dish should have” may restrict hawkers’ creativity in preparing certain traditional dishes such as “our beloved nasi lemak,” citing that it “may not make the mark unless a cup of cucumbers is added” as an example.

Mr Seetoh said: “Charge as much as you want and pay as much as you dare. It’s market forces at play, willing buyer and seller deals – but not in a public funded and own SEHC … You have the obligations to protect the common citizen’s economic meal and to not raise unnecessary costs for hawkers and customers.”

“They need help to flourish, not rules and penalties,” he wrote.

Netizens seemed to have generally agreed with Mr Seetoh’s sentiments, and are apprehensive about the prospect of hawkers being “cheated” as a result of what may be interpreted as an exploitative contract:

Not much has been done by the NEA to alleviate the issue of tray-return system and cleaning fees by public food court operators other than “making meaningless, ‘no action statements’ to the public”: Leong Sze Hian

Former president of The Society of Financial Service Professionals Leong Sze Hian has also criticised the way public food courts are run, questioning if ‘social enterprise’ food courts are really ‘social enterprises’ as often touted by the government.

Mr Leong also criticised the NEA’s apparent inaction regarding the issue other than what he had labelled as “making meaningless, ‘no action’ statements,” such as “saying that the stallholders had [willingly] agreed to the terms when they signed their contracts.”

Citing Channel NewsAsia’s article “Jurong West Hawker Centre customers to pay deposit when using trays: Hawker Management” dated 18 Oct, Mr Leong questioned if it meant that “customers will be paying 20 cents more,” as they will no longer receive the “20 cents” per tray incentive. 

In the article, it was stated that Hawker Management had proposed a change to a deposit system, in response to the complaints received by the Koufu Group from stallholders regarding having to foot the bill for the tray-return programme, 

“If so, it is an increase of say about 7% for a meal of $3, or 20 cents divided by $3,” he added.

Quoting a CNA article titled Koufu meets Jurong West hawkers over tray-return fees” dated 16 Oct, it was stated by Hawker Management that “at S$1,100, Jurong West Hawker Centre’s cleaning fees are one of the lowest among social enterprise hawker centres.”

Mr Leong lambasted the statement by Hawker Management, and urged the NEA to “start doing some real work, such as providing a table comparing the charges borne by stallholders of the 7 food court operators, as well as the percentage increase in the total charges since the NEA started its Department of Cleaning (DOC) in 2012.”

He also touched on an anonymous stallholder’s opinion regarding the “misplaced intention” behind implementing the tray-return system. 

Mr Leong quoted the stallholder, who spoke to CNA: “They want to teach customers to be more gracious, but this should be taught at home since young. It shouldn’t be on us. This is a very f**ked up method. It puts us in such a precarious and embarrassing position.

“I’ve seen fights break out between stallholders over these trays. I’ve also seen people and school children come to the hawker centre to collect and return trays just to get the S$0.20 in exchange. You can’t put this on us.”

Mr Leong appeared to agree with the stallholder’s sentiment, adding: “Why is it that [citizens of] other countries such as Japan do not have our problem of ‘not returning trays’?”