SINGAPORE: Hawker Management met at least six hawkers from Jurong West Hawker Centre on Tuesday (Oct 16) who had signed a petition to call for the removal of charges for a tray-return programme.
The social enterprise subsidiary under Koufu Group managing the hawker centre had received complaints from hawkers who had to pay for a tray-return programme that rewards customers with S$0.20 for each tray they returned.
The petition, submitted in August to the National Environment Agency, was for the removal of the charge levied on stall tenants, which can come up to hundreds of dollars a month.
Of the 34 cooked food stalls at Jurong West Hawker Centre, 12 signed the petition.
Koufu Group’s chief development officer David Yang told Channel NewsAsia on Tuesday that the meeting, which took more than an hour, was "cordial" and "fruitful".
There were no instances of finger-pointing, he said.
Hawker Management also said in a statement that the tray-return programme has resulted in lower cleaning fees for the food centre as fewer cleaners are employed.
At S$1,100, Jurong West Hawker Centre’s cleaning fees are one of the lowest among social enterprise hawker centres, it said.
ISSUES TO BE RAISED TO MANAGEMENT
Apart from the tray-return issue, Mr Yang said that the tenants also brought up other concerns such as the contractual period tenants are under.
"At the end of the day, I think the tenants understand that we’re all in the same boat. So it’s not a finger-pointing session but more of how do we resolve the matters so that we are all aligned and can move forward together," Mr Yang said.
The engagement with hawkers, including those who did not sign the petition, is expected to complete by the end of this week. Mr Yang added that the management will discuss their findings and speak with the hawkers again next week on the potential solutions to ease their concerns.
A hawker who goes by the name of Mdm Cheong said that a Hawker Management representative present at the meeting listened to the hawkers’ concerns.
"We were told that it will be presented to the management for discussion, so now we are just waiting for a response," Mdm Cheong said.
"We also raised our concerns about the little footfall over here. Lunch is okay, there are still some customers. But when it’s dinner time, it’s very quiet," she added.
Some hawkers also suggested a lowering of their operating costs during the meeting, she said, particularly on the tray-return fees which can come up to a significant cost for the hawkers.
FIGHTS OVER TRAYS
Hawker assistant Mdm Lee, who signed the petition on her employer’s behalf, said that her stall uses about 100 to 150 trays in a day. This comes up to between S$600 to S$900 a month, she said.
"We serve hot soup here. It’s impossible to not give out trays to customers because the soup might spill," she said.
Stallholder Nur Farah Damri said she is fine with paying for using the trays and added that she has benefited from the tray return system.
"It helps us because you know how pampered our customers are. It makes them clear their trays so the aunty that you see pushing (the cleaning cart), there are fewer things for her to clear," she said.
READ: On The Job as a food court cleaner: Exhausting work which could be easier if people cleared their own plates
Another stallholder, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the intention to inculcate a culture of tray return among patrons is misplaced.
"They want to teach customers to be more gracious but this should be taught at home, since young. It shouldn’t be on us. This is a very f**ked up method. It puts us in such a precarious and embarrassing position," she said.
"I’ve seen fights break out between stallholders over these trays. I’ve also seen people and school children come to the hawker centre to collect and return trays just to get the S$0.20 in exchange. You can’t put this on us," the anonymous stallholder added.
After Makansutra founder and veteran food critic KF Seetoh posted a blog entry in August titled "Not Social Enterprise Hawker Centres", social enterprise hawker centres have been in the spotlight for their additional charges and services.
Last month, Ci Yuan Hawker Centre managed by the social enterprise arm of Fei Siong Group came under scrutiny after some stallholders were levied "compulsory" charges for quality control and coin exchange.
Fei Siong later explained that there was a "miscommunication" between the management and hawkers and that the fees were, in fact, optional.
Ci Yuan and Jurong West Hawker Centres are two of the seven social enterprise hawker centres running on an alternative management model. The others are Our Tampines Hub Hawker Centre, Yishun Park Hawker Centre, Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre, Kampung Admiralty Hawker Centre and Pasir Ris Central Hawker Centre.