10 Facts about the Social Enterprise Hawker Centres Saga That’s Happened So Far

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or on a social media fast, you would have heard all about the unhappiness social enterprise hawker centres have caused.  

Yes, I’m talking about the tray-return policy happening at Jurong West Hawker Centre, the Old Airport Road hawker debate and “unfair” contract terms plaguing hawkers.

Here are 10 facts about the entire saga you need to know.

1. What is a Social Enterprise?

Before we begin, a social enterprise basically refers to a business that maximises profits to bring good to the community.

At present, Fei Siong Food Management, NTUC Foodfare, Timbre Group, Hawker Management and OTHM are the social enterprises running 13 hawker centres in Singapore.

2. How did this come about?

Prior to social enterprises, all hawker centres were managed by the NEA.

In 2011, there were growing concerns among the authorities over the escalating cost of living and a shortage of affordable food options in housing estates.  

As such, a Hawker Centre Public Consultation Panel was established. One recommendation by the panel was to allow social enterprises to manage hawker centres.

Under this proposal, social enterprises are to run hawker centres on a not-for-profit basis. This means that the manager cannot suka suka take any surplus generated.

Instead, they are supposed to share with the community and create social benefits.

These include helping the lower-income find jobs and enabling people who aspire to be in the food industry.

Sounds good right? But somehow, along the way, something went wrong.

3. Having to apply for leave in advance

Many hawkers who took up stalls in hawker centres run by social enterprises have complained that they are required to apply for leave in advance if they choose to keep their stalls closed.  

In fact, according to KF Seetoh, stallholders at Our Tampines Hub have to pay $250 fine for every day their stall is closed if notice was not given one week in advance.  

4. Higher table-cleaning and dishwashing fees

At a regular hawker centre, hawkers get to negotiate these fees with the contractors.  

However, these costs could run twice as high for hawkers in social enterprise hawker centres.  For them, the costs are fixed and stated in their tenancy agreements.  

Keeping in mind that these contracts are wordy and loaded with legal terms, some stallholders might not have known what they had gotten themselves into prior to signing the agreement.    

5. The tenancy agreement

Speaking of the tenancy agreement, stallholders are required to pay $267.50 “for legal fees incurred in its preparation”.  

Image: A contract K F Seetoh managed to get hold of

$267.50…that’s right.

6. Teething problems are being ignored

Several stallholders at Pasir Ris Central Hawker Centre (a social enterprise hawker now) have complained that their teething problems, such as leaking exhaust hoods, are not being addressed.  

Feeling frustrated that their problems are not resolved, more than 10 tenants have packed up and left since the opening of the hawker centre in January.  

7. Hawkers are not being consulted enough

Who knows the hawker centre better than those working there?  It may seem like a no-brainer to consult the stallholders who are the main stakeholders but this is not the case.

According to CNA, both the Hawkers Centres Public Consultation Panel and the Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee comprised those who do not have direct experience with hawker centres.  Like who, you may ask.  Architects, academics and educators from schools were consulted.

Erm, what about the hawkers?

8. No prior experience

Many complained that some social enterprises are running the hawkers like food courts.

CNA argues that this is because many of these companies do not have experience in dealing with hawker centres.  

This is no wonder why some of the practices, such as having hawkers absorb the cost of tray return deposits, were implemented.

But that’s okay.

9. The authorities are doing something about it

Thanks to K F Seetoh and the outcry of the public, the authorities are now prepared to do something about it.

Senior Minister of State for Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor said that NEA is now working with hawker centre operators and hawkers to “iron out” existing issues.

NEA is also reviewing the contracts social enterprises signed with hawkers at the hawker centres.

Should the operators be found to be trying to be practising bad business practices, NEA will deal with them.

Well, one issue has already been ironed out: hawkers would no longer need to pay for trays in Jurong West Hawker Centre.

10. Head of Hawker Panel Who Recommended Social Enterprises Defends Current Model

Now that fingers are getting pointed everywhere, it’s inevitable that fingers are going to be pointed at the people who recommended the model in the first place.

The Hawker Centre Public Consultation Panel.

The chair of the 18-member Hawker Centres Public Consultation Panel, Ms Elim Chew, has stepped forward to defend the current social-hawker centres model.

She said that the panel had recommended this out of good intentions. In addition, she added that she doesn’t think it’s a “wrong model”, but it could do with some tweaks.

After all, new stuff needs time to settle in (our words, not hers). You know, like new iPhones #jusysaying