The uproar over the shocking costs hawkers are forced to contend with at the new Social Enterprise Hawker Centres continues unabated, with hawkers at the Old Airport Road hawker centre claiming that dishwashing fees have climbed by a hefty 40 per cent since labour movement-linked NTUC Foodfare took over the historic food centre.
The National Environment Agency (NEA) – a Government statutory board under the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources – used to oversee the licensing, management, and regulation of hawkers at all Government-run hawker centres until recently, when the Government allowed social enterprises to take over certain hawker centres.
Since the Government began allowing social enterprises to run hawker centres, multiple reports of these social enterprises charging hawkers exorbitant fees have emerged, sparking worries that these costs that overtly tax hawkers will be passed to consumers and eventually kill Singapore’s hawker culture.
Today, 13 out of 114 hawker centres across Singapore are managed by five social enterprises: NTUC Foodfare, Fei Siong Food Management, NTUC Foodfare, Timbre Group, OTHM and Hawker Management.
OTHM is a subsidiary of Kopitiam – which is set to be sold to NTUC Enterprise by the end of this year – while Hawker Management is a subsidiary of grassroots leader-founded Koufu.
Interestingly, of the 13 hawker centres that social enterprises presently run, NTUC Foodfare runs five which are not new establishments but existing old hawker centres that it took over from the NEA.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, several hawkers at the famous Old Airport Road Food Centre – one of the five food centres that NTUC Foodfare took over from the NEA two years ago – told one socio-political website that their dishwashing fees have been hiked by 40 per cent to $580 a month since NTUC Foodfare took over.
Hawkers at the new Pasir Ris Central Hawker Centre, that is also run by NTUC Foodfare, also revealed that more than 10 tenants have moved out since January this year.
One of the hawkers at Pasir Ris Central Hawker Centre – halal burger stall Burgernomics hawker, Mr Khaharudin Juraimi – further said that NTUC Foodfare management does not act appropriately when hawkers flag issues to them.
Mr Khaharudin said that the exhaust hoods some stalls at the hawker centre, including his, have been leaking and that NTUC Foodfare has not taken action or worked to fix the issue, even though hawkers have raised the issue to the management several times.
More hawkers voice out against Social Enterprise Hawker Centres (SEHCs)
The shocking costs that are imposed upon hawkers who operate stalls at SEHCs came to light when renowned local food guru KF Seetoh exposed that hawkers at SEHC “pay a total of $4000 pmth on average” including compulsory payments for spot checks, “coin changing service,” a percentage of overall takings if it is higher than basic rent, and penalties for early closures.
Seetoh, the founder of the long-running Makansutra food network, added: “Despite these startling high cost of operation and management fees, they are expected to offer at least one dish at below $3 in the menu.”
Since Seetoh’s revelations went viral, several hawkers across Singapore have spoken out against the SEHCs where they are forced to grapple with hefty costs that they did not face in the traditional NEA-run hawker centres.
Noted hawker, Mr Douglas Ng who runs the famous Fishball Story eatery that earned the honour of making it into the Singapore Michelin Bib Gourmand Guide in 2016, told reporters that hawkers are unhappy because their centres are run like food courts:
“Some new hawker centres are being run like food courts. That’s why hawkers are unhappy…the rental costs are rising…hawkers can’t take back their deposits if they want to leave earlier.”
This indeed makes sense since food court operators like NTUC Foodfare, Kopitiam and Koufu subsidiaries are taking over these hawker centres that operate quite differently from food courts.
Another hawker, Mr Daniel Goh who runs a craft beer stall at Chinatown Complex Food Centre, said that the hefty costs and fees imposed at such SEHCs turn away aspiring hawkers since they can earn more as a line cook at a hotel – a job that typically pays about $2,000 a month.
Noting that some of these social enterprises are run by for-profit corporations, Mr Goh asked: “So to expect them to run a ‘social enterprise’ business is conflicting, to say the least. Exactly which aspect of social enterprise hawker centre is social, aside from forcing hawkers to offer a cheap option for diners?”
Another longtime hawker, Ang Mo Kio Food Centre’s Mr Kelvin Ang, revealed that he would not want to run a stall under an SEHC. Revealing that the hawkers’ association at the NEA-run Ang Mo Kio Food Centre engage contractors for dishwashing and such themselves and that hawkers negotiate prices with the contractors directly, Mr Ang noted:
“The NEA, they believe in a free market…they won’t control prices. Everyone follows the same set of rules. But every social enterprise runs their centres differently; it causes confusion.”
He further expressed concerns among hawkers that eventually all hawker centres will be absorbed by social enterprises: “There are rumours among hawkers that sooner or later, all of us will be under this type of social enterprise management. We are all worried.”