TL;DR – The problems don’t die singularly with the social enterprises.

I used to run a food stall in a coffeeshop. I was sort of silent partner. I put in some money, my friend ran the stall, I would occasionally drop by to help out. It was doing quite well, and when someone else wanted to take over my share, I sold it for a tidy profit. I know the costs of running a food stall in Singapore.

That’s why when I saw the article by KF Seetoh criticising the social enterprises that run hawker centres, I thought that he wasn’t being entirely fair.

Are the costs actually “extra”?

One of the criticisms that KF Seetoh had was that hawkers had to pay these “social enterprises” a lot of “extra” costs. He showed a sample contract:

Part of a standard contract between hawker and operator of hawker centre. (via)

 

Because of these “extra” costs, KF Seetoh claims that the total “rent” comes up to close to $4,000 a month, which is more than the rent at popular hawker centres like Maxwell Road. What KF Seetoh doesn’t say is that the rent at Maxwell that he’s referring to doesn’t include what the hawker has to pay for table cleaning services, service and conservancy charges, and dishwashing services. If you add all those up, the hawker at Maxwell Road hawker centre probably pays around, if not more than, $4,000 a month.

And that’s the thing that KF Seetoh doesn’t point out.

A lot of these “extra” costs that he talks about aren’t extra.

Take table cleaning for example. In 2013, a hawker at hawker centres managed by NEA would have needed to pay between $226 to $676 a month for the cleaning service. It’s now 2018, I’m sure the price for that service is higher than in 2013. So for a “social enterprise” that’s managing a hawker centre to charge $550 for table cleaning service isn’t exactly being too “extra”.

Then there is dishwashing. If you are a hawker, do you really want to wash your dishes at the end of a long day’s work? Probably not. So you probably would hire someone to wash your dishes. I can’t quite see the figure in the picture, but it looks like it’s $850 a month for dishwashing.

Do you know how much it costs to hire someone to wash dishes in Singapore? According to the job search site Indeed.com, the average salary of a dishwasher is $1,500 a month. The lowest I saw was $1,000. So, again, this “extra” cost for dishwashing is probably not really extra.

 

We also need to consider the effects of the Progressive Wage Model (PWM) that was implemented for the cleaning sector fully from September 2015.

In the widely-outsourced cleaning industry, the labour movement had lobbied for years for the tripartite partners to adopt the PWM so that cleaners could enjoy higher wages and also gain opportunities for training and progression. Base wages, annual wage adjustments and also bonus payments are all part of the PWM. Surely these would have affected cost of providing cleaning services and dishwashing for the “social enterprises”.

And we all want our cleaners and dishwashers to be paid fair wages, right? After all, these are all back-breaking hard work.

Maybe got two items are indeed a bit extra

And that’s the case for every item in that sample contract, except maybe two items – rental of cashless system, and concept and marketing.

Hawkers have long done well managing cash. Why burden them with an additional cost of renting a cashless system? Then I found out, it’s an NEA requirement. Because some smart aleck went to include that as a recommendation in the Hawker Centre 3.0 Report, which NEA accepted. This was the recommendation:

“The Government could also facilitate cashless payment and self- ordering/payment initiatives so that hawkers do not have to deal with payment directly and can concentrate on food preparation.”

 

And because of that recommendation, hawkers now have to pay to rent the cashless system. Eh… Gahmen ah… if you want to facilitate, then you come out with the money and facilitate lah. You mean the “social enterprises” running the hawker centres are supposed to be the ones paying the costs to “facilitate” this meh?

Surely NEA should have expected that these costs will be passed onto the hawkers, and perhaps ultimately, the consumers? Shouldn’t whoever wanted the cashless system pay for it?

And what I totally don’t get is why a hawker needs to pay a monthly fee for concept and marketing. Erm…. Got marketing meh for hawker centres meh? Really meh? Where, what, how and when??

 

Maybe there are more… but perhaps not a problem faced by all

So, as far as I can see from that one sample contract between a hawker and the HCSE (Hawker Centre Social Enterprise), I can only see the above two items that can be considered “extra”. Every thing else seems quite necessary.

And, according to that contract, the hawker also doesn’t have to pay a portion of his gross revenue as “rent”. That’s something that’s practised by most foodcourts (including the one where I had my stall).

And sure, there might be some “social enterprises” which charge for ridiculous things like for consultants to check the hawkers’ routine or food quality. But that’s not something done by all of these social enterprises. As far as I know, NTUC FoodFare doesn’t charge rental by percentage of gross turnover (GTO), and neither does it charge for food inspection.

Location might be a problem

KF Seetoh did bring up a good point. He highlighted that there isn’t much crowd at these hawker centres. That’s most likely because they are at “far flung residential areas”. Well… but that’s not really the fault of the social enterprises operating the hawker centres though. It’s more likely the fault decision of… NEA for situating the hawker centres at places without sufficient footfall and demand to ensure a viable business.

So. As much as we want to highlight a problem, I think we need to be fair and reasonable. Make apple-for-apple comparisons. Present the facts properly and not muddle things up. That way, we’ll have a clearer idea of what really needs to be done and rectified.

We don’t have answers too, but what we do know is that this whole business of NEA outsourcing the management of hawker centres to social enterprises needs a total re-look. And we hope soon too, before the local hawker scene really dies.

(Featured image via TODAY)