SINGAPORE: Even though the National Environment Agency (NEA) has appointed social enterprises Fei Siong, NTUC Foodfare and Timbre to operate new hawker centres, stallholders can still flag their concerns to NEA through its place managers, said Dr Amy Khor in Parliament on Monday (Oct 1).
Senior Minister of State for Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor said that these place managers visit hawker centres weekly to check for defects and cleanliness, as well as to engage hawkers.
"So the stallholders can, at any time, approach our place managers if there are pertinent issues," she said.
Dr Khor was responding to questions by Members of Parliament (MPs) Louis Ng and Zainal Sapari as well as Non-constituency MP Daniel Goh on the issue of extra costs faced by hawkers at social enterprise hawker centres.
Prof Goh had asked if NEA was aware of recent complaints by stallholders on the additional costs and whether the hawkers are surveyed regularly on their satisfaction of the operator's management.
Dr Khor said that with respect to a S$600 fee charged to hawkers at Hougang Ci Yuan Hawker Centre for cleanliness inspections, the operator Fei Siong has clarified that it was an optional fee.
Only nine out of more than 40 stallholders at the food centre have taken up this optional charge, she said.
She added that stall rentals of new hawker centres today, including operating costs, are "significantly lower" than those in comparable food courts and coffee shops.
She emphasised that when there are additional charges or new initiatives that will impact on a hawker's costs, operators have to inform NEA and obtain approval.
Since 2015, the NEA has appointed socially-conscious operators to manage new hawker centres on a not-for-profit basis under a new alternative hawker management model.
There are seven such social enterprise hawker centres: Ci Yuan Hawker Centre, Our Tampines Hub Hawker Centre, Yishun Park Hawker Centre, Jurong West Hawker Centre, Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre, Kampung Admiralty Hawker Centre and Pasir Ris Central Hawker Centre.
Dr Khor added that "it takes time" for a new hawker centre to establish itself and that the Government will continue to refine and improve the management model.
"With time, we expect the new hawker centres to enhance the vibrancy and grow into valued community dining rooms," she said.
Mr Zainal and Mr Ng asked if NEA would consider offering help, such as subsidies or lower rent, to help struggling stallholders at social enterprise hawker centres.
In response, Dr Khor said that there are no plans to offer any subsidies because the stallholders "came in knowing what the costs are" but added that it appreciates the concerns of stallholders and that it is keeping a close watch on the situation.
"The footfall for some of these hawker centres has increased over time significantly so we are keeping a close watch," she said.
When NCMP Daniel Goh asked if the alternative hawker management model is sustainable and if they were facing problems keeping up with costs, Dr Khor said that when operators submit their tenders, they know that NEA will consider favourably those who offer lower rentals and total operating costs.
"They have to bear the risk of rental arrears as well as rental vacancies and so on. So again, it is actually clear, transparent, the terms of the tenders," she added.
Dr Khor added that these operators have brought benefits to hawker patrons and stallholders by introducing interesting food concepts and options such as hipster hawker fare to attract younger customers.
They have also implemented productivity improvements such as centralised dishwashing and general cleaning to reduce the hawkers' workload, Dr Khor said.
"The operators also fund their own initiatives to achieve social objectives and enhance the vibrancy for the hawker centres," she said.