A tray-return station at Pasir Ris Central Hawker Centre, which is run by NTUC Foodfare. (Photo: Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore)
In the wake of the controversy surrounding social enterprise hawker centres (SEHCs), the National Environment Agency (NEA) has made several key changes to contractual terms between the social enterprises that run the hawker centres and the stallholders.
In a media statement on Friday (9 November), NEA elaborated on the changes:
Stallholders are not obliged to work more than five days a week. Operators will also offer them options on their operating hours. For those who wish to open their stalls for more than eight hours a day, the operators will help them plan their staffing – whether they need stall assistants or joint operators.
Stallholders are also encouraged to work with the operators to schedule their off-days, in order to ensure that the residents’ needs continue to be well-served.
Stallholders are now allowed to terminate their tenancy contracts by giving operators sufficient notice. The notice period required should be not more than two months. The security deposit held by the operator will also be no more than two months’ rent.
If the stallholder serves sufficient notice, the operator will not forfeit the security deposit nor require the stallholder to pay rent of more than two months or until a replacement is found, unless the stallholder has breached the tenancy agreement or caused damage to the stalls.
Should operators impose penalties for contractual or regulatory breaches, they should be kept reasonable, at no more than $50 for minor ones and $100 for major breaches.
Operators should try to keep business and administrative costs reasonable for hawkers. In this regard, they will bear all legal fees from the preparation and execution of contractual agreements with the stallholders, except for any stamp duty payable by the stallholders.
These changes will take effect on 1 January next year.
NEA added that it will continue to review the other contractual terms and make changes as necessary.
Feedback groups formed at new hawker centres
All five SEHC operators – Fei Siong Social Enterprise, OTMH, Timbre+Hawkers, Hawker Management, and NTUC Foodfare Co-operative – have also answered NEA’s call to form hawkers’ feedback groups in the hawker centres they manage.
All of them have conducted at least one feedback session in each of their new hawker centres.
NEA said in a media statement, “Our hawkers are dedicated entrepreneurs, and they face the challenge of maintaining a balance between providing affordable food and business costs.
“To sustain our hawker trade, NEA has and will continue to work with operators and hawkers to maintain the vibrancy and viability of our new hawker centres, to meet the needs of the public for accessible and affordable food.
“We also recognise that new hawker centres need time to establish themselves and build-up a clientele. Hawkers would thus benefit from more flexibility in the way they operate their stalls than today, even as we experiment with new management models, and seek new and better ways to sustain the hawker trade.”
Dissatisfaction by hawkers, issues raised
The SEHC have come under scrutiny in recent months, following issues raised by hawkers on issues such as costly tray-return deposit schemes, long working hours, unreasonable penalties for contract termination and incurrence of additional fees for dishwashing, tray returns and quality control.
This is in addition to teething problems at the new hawker centres, such as leaking exhaust hoods and poor crowd patronage.
Tenants at Jurong West Hawker Centre, for instance, submitted a petition in August to its operator, Hawker Management – a subsidiary of food centre operator Koufu – complaining about a scheme in which they had to pay customers 20 cents each time a tray was returned.
Singapore food critic and Makansutra founder K F Seetoh also highlighted several of the issues on his website, even penning an open letter to Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources, urging her and the Singapore government to help preserve public hawker centres.
Dr Khor said last month that the NEA will do a “stocktake” of the not-for-profit hawker centre model which allows social enterprises and cooperatives to run these centres.
She added, “We hear the concerns raised… NEA will not hesitate to take operators to task if they are found to be errant.”
Management model to have ‘more time to evolve’
Social enterprises currently manage seven new hawker centres, out of a total of 114 centres. NEA stated that this management model is still at an early stage, and should be given more time to evolve.
It added, “NEA will ensure that the model continues to achieve the social outcomes of our hawker centres: to provide accessible and affordable food in a clean and hygienic environment, allow our hawkers to make a decent living, and build-up our new hawker centres as our community dining rooms.”