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Petition lodged by hawkers paying the price for tray returns at Jurong West Hawker Centre

SINGAPORE — Feeling the pinch from paying hundreds of dollars a month for customers to return their trays, some hawkers at Jurong West Hawker Centre have petitioned the National Environment Agency (NEA) for the operator to remove the fee of 20 cents for each returned tray.

Hawkers at Jurong West Hawker Centre are claiming that it is the only one in Singapore where the stallholders are the ones paying for diners to return their trays.

Hawkers at Jurong West Hawker Centre are claiming that it is the only one in Singapore where the stallholders are the ones paying for diners to return their trays.

SINGAPORE — Feeling the pinch from paying hundreds of dollars a month for customers to return their trays, some hawkers at Jurong West Hawker Centre have petitioned the National Environment Agency (NEA) for the operator to remove the fee of 20 cents for each returned tray.

The petition, signed by 12 hawkers, was submitted in August and also sent to Koufu, which runs the hawker centre through its social enterprise subsidiary Hawker Management.

The hawkers are claiming that Jurong West Hawker Centre, which opened a year ago, is the only one in Singapore where stallholders are the ones paying for patrons to return their trays.

Customers at the hawker centre do not pay anything to take a tray when they buy food, but receive 20 cents when they return their tray.

In contrast, at hawker centres such as the one at Ayer Rajah Crescent and Yishun Park run by Timbre Group, customers pay refundable deposit of 50 cents or S$1 when they take trays.

One of the Jurong West hawkers who signed the petition told TODAY that they had to pay up to S$900 a month for tray charges, on top of the monthly S$2,140 rent and overhead costs.

The monthly overhead costs include S$1,100 in washing and collection fees, S$250 in service fees and S$300 for an automated cash machine allocated to each stall — making up a total of nearly S$4,000 per month.

As a result of Hawker Management’s system, the 40-year-old hawker, who asked not to be named, said she and fellow stallholders have had arguments with customers over trays.

For example, if a customer uses three trays for three dishes that could be placed on one tray, the stallholder has to fork out 60 cents in total. The costs add up if business is good, she said.

The NEA said that it has received “feedback” from some stallholders at Jurong West Hawker Centre. Stallholders were “aware of the charges involved before signing the (tenancy) agreement” with Hawker Management, said a spokesperson from NEA.

The agency has asked Hawker Management to work with the stallholders to address any concerns on this matter. It added that effective tray-return systems make the cleaning of tables easier and faster, which is beneficial to both customers and stallholders.

The petition, signed by 12 hawkers, was submitted in August and also sent to Koufu, which runs the hawker centre through its social enterprise subsidiary Hawker Management.

In the contract, a copy of which was seen by TODAY, it is stated that stallholders must take part in the “tray return with incentive system implemented by the landlord”.

“The tenant shall pay S$0.20 / tray issued to the tray cleaning contractor at the point of issuance,” it was written. Tenants must issue a tray to each customer for the purchase of food and bulk purchase of drinks.

Hawker Management told TODAY that it is reviewing the petition. The tray return system was a joint effort by stallholders and the management, it said.

“The initiative was implemented to achieve two objectives — to collectively encourage customers to return their used trays and thereby creating a cleaner and more comfortable environment; and to increase productivity within the hawker centre and provide more affordable food options for the community,” it added.

FEWER CUSTOMERS, LESS PROFITS

Tray-return fees are among the woes faced by hawkers at Jurong West Hawker Centre. Footfall has dipped drastically in recent months, leading to lower profits and many tenants relocating to other centres, some said.

The hawker who spoke to TODAY, a divorcee with two children, said that this drove her to move to a coffee shop in central Singapore. At Jurong West, her gross earnings sometimes added up to only S$300 a day after 10 hours of business, she said.

Her move out of the hawker centre came with a penalty for the early termination of her contract.

She now has to continue paying the basic monthly rent of S$2,140 at Jurong West until her three-year contract is up, or until Hawker Management finds a replacement tenant.

“If business is good, no one will want to move, but when we give feedback, management doesn’t do much,” lamented the woman, who said she gave a month’s notice. “Our business, we really cannot sustain, so we decided to give it up rather than stay there for the next two years.”

Hawker Management said that if “sufficient notice” is given, no penalty is involved. Hawkers are informed of all charges upfront when they apply for a stall and before signing the tenancy agreement, and the terms are “standard industry practice”, it said.

Any operating surplus is channelled back into the hawker centre “for the benefit of the community”, it added.

SOCIAL ENTERPRISE-RUN HAWKER CENTRES IN THE SPOTLIGHT

The issues of the tray return system, along with the “penalty” fees, were raised by food critic and consultant KF Seetoh on Tuesday (Oct 9) in an open letter on his Makansutra website.

In the letter addressed to Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources, Mr Seetoh said that a tenant from a hawker centre run by a social enterprise had told him of the problems. TODAY understands that the tenant is from Jurong West Hawker Centre, and is a different hawker from the woman who spoke to TODAY.

Mr Seetoh claimed that Hawker Management charges tenants for contract drafts whenever it updates management terms.

The NEA said that it is aware of his post and is looking into the issues raised.

This is not the first time Mr Seetoh, the founder of Makansutra website, has spoken up on the management model of food centres run by social enterprises. There are now 13 of them managed by five entities: Fei Siong Food Management, NTUC Foodfare, Timbre Group, Hawker Management under Koufu, and OTMH under Kopitiam.

Last month, he said in a post on his website that hawkers at such centres pay higher monthly rental fees than their counterparts at popular centres such as Maxwell Food Centre, which is managed by the NEA.

Channel NewsAsia then reported on hawkers at Hougang’s Ci Yuan Hawker Centre paying a S$600 fee for cleanliness inspections. Fei Siong, which operates the centre, later clarified that it was optional.

In a discussion in Parliament earlier this month, Dr Khor said that operators must be transparent about all costs with potential stallholders before they sign tenancy agreements.

TODAY previously reported on hawkers at social enterprise-run centres complaining of long operating hours and high rental fees in spite of low footfall, as well as the lack of transparency over the services for which they pay.

Another worker at a stall in Jurong West Hawker Centre, who wanted to be known only as Simon, said that his supervisor has considered moving to another centre.

When TODAY visited his stall on Wednesday afternoon, he had earned S$51 after opening at 7am.

The 55-year-old said: “Headache, also, (if we want to move). When we first started, we earned S$500 to S$600 a day, but in the last one to two months, it dropped a lot to S$100 to S$200."

He noted that the location might not be ideal, with customers unwilling to head up to the hawker centre, which is located on the second storey. Many of them instead patronise the Koufu food court at the nearby Pioneer Mall.

“Even on weekends, sales are bad,” he said.


Clarification: An earlier version of this story said customers of hawker centres such as the one at Yishun Park run by Timbre Group pay a S$1 refundable deposit when they take trays. Timbre has clarified that customers at Yishun Park pay a refundable deposit of 50 cents while customers at Timbre+ at Ayer Rajah pay S$1.

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