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Here’s everything we know about what’s happening at Old Airport Road hawker centre

It isn't necessarily so straightforward.

Joshua Lee |Jeanette Tan | October 24, 2018 @ 03:10 pm

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[UPDATED at 6:30pm: adding further clarification from NTUC Foodfare on new online form clauses]

Amidst the chatter on the issues faced by hawkers at privately-run social-enterprise hawker centres, another hawker centre — this one arguably more established and well-known — has found itself in the spotlight.

Most of us are familiar with Old Airport Road Food Centre. What not everyone may know, though, is that NTUC FoodFare has since July last year taken over its management.

And according to one Facebook user and frequent diner, one Gary Ho, that transition has not been smooth.

In a Facebook post dated October 23, Ho said that at least one Old Airport Road hawker has lamented how “recent changes (by NTUC Foodfare) are going to kill the hawker centre”.

These changes, he alleges, include:

  1. Making hawkers sign legal documents in English without the help of a translator.
  2. Making hawkers pay mandatory insurance of S$100++ per annum for the area outside their stalls.
  3. Increasing hawkers’ cleaning costs by S$200 per month.
  4. Making hawkers report their daily movements to the operators or face punishment.
  5. Making hawkers stay open for “very long” hours (the exact number of hours is unspecified).

Here’s his post in full:

An additionally damning detail was Ho’s allegation that the hawkers’ representative Member of Parliament (MP), Mountbatten SMC MP Lim Biow Chuan, was present at meetings where the hawkers brought up their concerns to the management, but has allegedly, till now, “said nothing”.

Lim: Rate of cleaning fees previously agreed upon by Hawkers Association

In response to Mothership’s queries on Tuesday, Lim explained that when Foodfare was first asked to manage Old Airport Road Hawker Centre, Lim had called a meeting between NTUC and the food centre’s hawkers so that “we can all be on the same page”.

He said they were at first concerned about the fact that they were signing their new tenancy agreements with Foodfare instead of the National Environment Agency (NEA), which manages most hawker centres in Singapore.

Lim also explained that there were issues regarding the cleaning contractor hired to provide services to the hawker centres. The hawkers complained that while prices had gone up with the hawker centre’s latest tender with the cleaning contractor, the quality of services provided had worsened because there were not enough cleaners working.

The situation regarding this, even prior to NTUC coming on board, was so bad, Lim says, that just before Foodfare came into the picture, the hawker centre’s previous cleaning contractor “disappeared overnight”, and Foodfare had to bring in a replacement contractor at short notice to help plug the gap.

Lim told Mothership that NTUC Foodfare committed to sticking to the existing payment formula the hawkers had with their previous cleaning contractor.

Having said that, Lim says NTUC Foodfare and the Hawker Association are working to resolve the matter with the cleaning contractor. He touched also on the point about giving discounts to certain hawkers who didn’t use as many dishes with their food, saying that the cleaning fees payable by each hawker was agreed to by the hawkers’ association, and that “when one hawker pays less, it means that other hawkers will pay more.”

Lim denies being aware of the other complaints from the hawkers, declaring that Ho’s allegation of him “keeping silent” about them is untrue.

Lim said his Tuesday weekly Meet-the-People Sessions are held one floor above the hawker centre, and that he also visits the hawker centre to eat and walks around it to talk to hawkers regularly. He also said he went to Ipoh with several of the hawkers in June this year, over a three-day hawker centre cleaning period, but none of them had raised any of these issues to him.

He also put up a Facebook post detailing some of these points:

Online application form states fixed min. opening hours, requirement to seek permission a week in advance

On Wednesday afternoon, another individual, Lim Jialiang, posted a response to Lim’s post, pointing out some other issues he observed from a contract he found on NTUC Foodfare’s website.

Screenshot from Lim Jialiang’s Facebook post

Jialiang (whom we are referring to by name to prevent confusion), who runs a beverage stall at Chinatown Complex, alleged that according to the form published online, Foodfare:

– imposes a minimum opening period of eight hours, and
– requires hawkers to seek permission from Foodfare a week in advance before being able to close the stall for more than one day in any given week, or to close earlier than the required minimum eight hours.

He also cast doubt on Lim’s assertion that hawkers are not punished even if they were to fail to report their movements to Foodfare:

“Thirdly, you say that there’s no punishment if any hawker closes early, or breaks any of the clauses. If there are no punitive measures involved, then as any decent lawyer will tell you, what are these clauses in the form for?”

NTUC Foodfare lays out cleaning fee structure agreed upon by hawkers’ association

NTUC Foodfare also responded to Ho’s allegations in a statement to Mothership.

In its statement, the operator revealed that the hawker association had requested it to call for a tender in September 2017, earlier than the expiry of the contract of the temporary cleaning provider Foodfare had engaged between July and December 2017. The new contractor started work on Jan. 1, 2018.

It was also on the hawker association’s request that Foodfare structured the cleaning fees into three tiers based on the amount of crockery used by different stalls:

Pastry/ Dim Sum Stalls: S$374.50
Drinks/ Dessert Stalls: S$513.60
Cooked food Stalls: S$588.50

Foodfare also shared that its tender criteria included the vendor’s “ability to deploy sufficient manpower, track record and pricing”.

Aside from that, Foodfare also shared the following with Mothership regarding Ho’s allegations:

1) On being forced to sign contracts in English without any explanation or translation:

Foodfare said that “all the terms covered in the stallholder checklist” are explained at the point the tenancy agreement is signed with the hawkers.

Here’s a copy of the checklist:

If you can’t see the line items, the English ones read as follows:

  • Pay the monthly rent on time.
  • Pay the monthly service & conservancy charges, table cleaning charges (for cooked food stalls), licence fee and utilities on time.
  • Operate the stall personally. No subletting is allowed.
  • No assignment of stall is allowed (for non-subsidised stallholders).
  • Not to leave your stall vacant or use your stall for storage purposes.
  • Keep your stall in a clean, proper and sanitary condition.
  • Take up an insurance coverage for your stall as encouraged.
  • Adhere to the terms and conditions in the Tenancy Agreement at all times.
  • Reinstate the stall upon the expiry or termination of the tenancy.

In addition for cooked food stalls:

  • Attend and pass basic food hygiene course (For new stallholders)
  • All stallholders and their hawker assistants must be registered food handlers.
  • Have a valid hawker licence
  • Ensure all cooking is done by either gas or electricity or other fuel approved by NEA and/or the competent authority.

2) On the mandatory insurance charge:

Foodfare told Mothership that it is a requirement from the NEA that all hawkers take up public liability insurance for protection against third-party claims that could include fire, food poisoning and more. This rule is not actively enforced in practice, however, and as a result some hawkers may not be aware of it or wish to actually pay for insurance.

Foodfare, in turn, explains to hawkers the need for insurance protection but its spokesperson stressed to Mothership that it does not force hawkers to actually buy it. Additionally, Foodfare also said hawkers are free to engage their own insurers for this purpose if they wish.

3) On being made to stay open for longer hours to report on their movements to Foodfare: 

Foodfare told Mothership that there are no minimum operating hours imposed at the hawker centre. Nor, it says, are hawkers’ rest days per week limited.

“At Old Airport Road Hawker Centre, we do not enforce a minimum number of operating hours nor limit the number of rest day/s per week. The hawkers are free to decide their operating hours and days of stall closure with prior notification to the managing agent.”

This requirement of notifying Foodfare beforehand is one that also applies with NEA-managed hawker centres, Mothership understands.

You can read Foodfare’s full reply below, which provides the context behind the increase in cleaning fees:

NTUC Foodfare as Managing Agent of Old Airport Road Hawker Centre would like to correct the online allegation of unreasonable increase in cleaning charges at Old Airport Road Hawker Centre.

NTUC Foodfare was appointed by NEA as the managing agent (MA) for Old Airport Road Hawker Centre from 1 July, 2017.

On the eve of the appointment on 30 Jun, 2017, we were alerted by the Hawker Association (HA) representative that the current table cleaning contractor had gone missing (reported in Wanbao on 2 July, 2017 ) and they reached out to NEA and Foodfare to help source for an interim cleaning contractor, so that the centre may continue to operate without disruption. We managed to bring in an interim table cleaning contractor for a period of 6 months till Dec 2017 and had negotiated for them to provide the service at the standing rate charged by the previous contractor, to avoid any business disruption to the hawkers. At the request of HA, an open tender was called in Sept 2017, ahead of the contract expiry.

As stipulated in the Managing Agent Agreement signed with NEA, we are tasked to call for a tender for a new table cleaning contractor accredited under NEA’s Clean Mark Enhanced Accreditation Scheme, based on the scope of requirements, in an effort to raise the hygiene and cleanliness standard at the centre. The MA is to ensure that the contractor complies with the performance standards.

The tender exercise was called through a transparent procurement process based on best sourcing principles. At the request of HA, it was decided that the tender bids be structured to a 3-tier pricing and the 3 tiers are pegged to the respective crockery usage load for these food trades 1) goreng pisang/kueh/bakery stalls, 2) drinks/juices stalls and 3) cooked food/seafood stalls.

The bids were evaluated and shortlisted based on a set of evaluation criteria such as the vendor’s ability to deploy sufficient manpower, track record and pricing. 3 bids which best meet the requirements are shortlisted and tabled to HA for their decision, with the contract taking effect from 1 Jan, 2018. The hawkers were informed in Dec 2017 of the new monthly charges (incl GST) below after HA selected the new contractor:

Pastry: $374.50

Dim Sum Stalls Drinks: $513.60

Dessert Stalls Cooked Food Stalls: $588.50

In the spirit of providing the best support to the hawkers in difficult times, NTUC Foodfare works hand in hand with the HA to ensure that the tender exercise is transparent and consultative, taking in their views so that the appointed contractor serves their operational needs and at an acceptable rate.”

Contract online does not apply to existing Old Airport Road Food Centre hawkers

Foodfare’s spokesperson also clarified to Mothership that the contract Jialiang added to his Facebook post was not applicable to the existing hawkers at Old Airport Road Food Centre.

In a subsequent statement shared with Mothership, the spokesperson said two new hawkers who operate stalls there are indeed subject to those conditions — eight-hour minimum operating hours, with one rest day per week, but notice of early closure or additional closure days requires informing Foodfare ahead of time.

The statement also says the two new hawkers did not give Foodfare any feedback or complaints about these policies.

Additionally, the phrasing in the online form notwithstanding, Foodfare told Mothership it does not require hawkers to seek approval or apply a week in advance for permission to take leave or close their stalls early — it simply needs to be kept informed.

When asked if there were any punitive measures for hawkers who breached any of the terms in the contract and checklist, Foodfare said penalties are not meted out but “non-compliance is taken into record, which may be considered at time of tenancy renewal”.

Foodfare said these rules apply to all the hawker centres it runs now, although it says it will honour previous agreements and arrangements made with existing hawkers it may have taken over management of, such as the one at Old Airport Road.

We have reached out to Ho for his comments on the responses from both parties. But this is what we know about the situation.

Top image via Google Street View

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