SINGAPORE: The S$600 quality control management fee and S$50 coin exchange fee levied on hawkers at Ci Yuan Hawker Centre in Hougang are optional for some of its hawkers, Fei Siong Food Management clarified on Friday (Sep 7).
The social enterprise which operates the hawker centre was responding to unhappiness voiced by some stall holders that the S$650 monthly fee – which is on top of rental costs – was compulsory.
"We believe it's some miscommunication from our team to hawkers," said Fei Siong Food Management's group general manager Joe Sng.
He explained that the S$600 fee, in particular, was introduced in July to address concerns by the management on food portions sold by hawkers.
Ci Yuan Hawker Centre, which is one of the seven social enterprise hawker centres running on an alternative management model, gets hawkers to provide at least one S$2.80 meal at their stall.
After complaints from residents about shrinking food portions, the management introduced the S$600 quality control service to address this issue.
Mr Sng said that the quality control is done by Fei Siong's own in-house employees.
The operations team at the hawker centre goes on patrols to look at the quality, portion and hygiene standards of the food. It also conducts “mystery shopping” to check on the dishes served by hawkers.
"Looking at the charges as a whole, I think it is reasonable," Mr Sng told reporters.
"We're doing this because we are insisting on our brand and quality. When we manage Ci Yuan, people will think of Fei Siong. If we're not doing a good job, it will affect our Fei Siong group. So on this point, we emphasise the food quality, food prices and food cleanliness regulations," he added.
Channel NewsAsia understands that Ci Yuan Hawker Centre is the only one to implement such a fee for quality control. While other social enterprise operators like OTMH and NTUC Foodfare conduct food quality and hygiene audits for hawkers, they do not charge stall owners a fee.
SOME PAY, AND SOME DON'T
Mr Sng emphasised that the services are optional for some of its hawkers – specifically those who were not part of the operator’s Entrepreneurship Programme.
Under the programme, aspiring hawkers receive training, mentorship as well as financial help with the setting up of their own hawker stalls, potentially saving up to S$30,000 for renovation and equipment required to run a hawker stall.
Of the 40-odd stalls at Ci Yuan hawker centre, 15 are owned by those who have gone through the programme, said Mr Sng. And the extra fees are compulsory for these hawkers.
For the other hawkers who started their own stall on their own dime, they are not required to pay for the S$600 quality control management fee should they choose to not take up the service.
However eight stall holders have, according to the operator.
When Channel NewsAsia spoke to the hawkers, one said he was informed this week that the fees are optional and believed it to be compulsory since July when the extra fees kicked in.
Two said that they have known all along that the fees are optional, and the owners of at least four stalls said they are still unaware that they can opt out of the extra services.
To tackle the miscommunication, Mr Sng said his team will "definitely improve on this area and make sure that everything is actually addressed accordingly".
One hawker who was part of the Entrepreneurship Programme said he is happy to pay the extra fees, even though the amount is higher – at S$1,000 – for participants of the programme.
Mr Derrick Lee said he benefited from the hawker training programme when he joined the industry with zero culinary skills. He pays more than S$4,000 every month for his stall, including the quality control management fee.
He added that the S$1,000 in extra fees sounds reasonable to him.
"When I signed on the dotted line, I didn't ... thrash it out with the management and ask what every single thing is for," Mr Lee said, explaining that he was concerned about other things like the rental period and operation requirements such as how many hours he needs to be open a day.
However, he added that the engagement with hawkers on the services and fees could have been done better.
"I'm not sure whether there were any sessions where all the stallholders were individually called to the management to explain what were the procedures, what the food quality inspection was all about. So it wasn't really communicated to us," Mr Lee said.
"As long as we are here and if we are paying for what we are paying, it's good that we know at least what they are doing. Perhaps it's not an obligation but it would be good that we are told what they are doing," he added.
SOCIAL ENTERPRISE MODEL A WORK IN PROGRESS
The issue of extra fees came into the spotlight after Makansutra founder KF Seetoh wrote about it, saying some of the charges are “shocking”.
The prominent food writer and personality also questioned the effectiveness of the social enterprise model in the running of hawker centres.
The model of appointing socially conscious operators was introduced in 2015, with the aim of improving operational efficiency while keeping food prices affordable.
Earlier on Friday, Senior Minister of State Amy Khor said that this management model, having run for three years, has brought some benefits by enhancing the vibrancy of hawker centres and improving the dining experiences of customers.
"We will continue to evaluate this alternative management model, take into account suggestions and feedback on this ongoing process,” Dr Khor said during her visit to Our Tampines Hub Hawker Centre.
“(We will) see how we can adjust, make refinements to the model so that we can have a better management model for our hawker centres and achieve these fundamental objectives of helping the hawkers make a decent livelihood at the same time and ensuring Singaporeans have access to good quality and affordable food in a hygienic environment,” she added.
Dr Khor also said that extra services such as quality control by hawker centre operators should be offered on an optional basis to stall holders.
She explained that operating costs such as collecting and cleaning of crockery are already included by the bidder in the tender, and managing agents have to inform the National Environment Agency when they want to offer additional services to hawkers.