Stallholders at two food centres in Bedok are locked in a dispute with their town council over the top-to-bottom cleaning of the centres.
The disagreement is about whether stallholders should have to foot any of the bill for power washing the ceilings and ceiling fixtures, an exercise that is done twice a year and requires them to vacate the premises for five days.
The two food centres are in blocks 511 and 538 of Bedok North Street 3, in the Kaki Bukit ward of Aljunied GRC. They are managed by the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) of the Workers' Party (WP).
Stallholders said they were informed they had to pay for the scaffolding that is erected for the washing, but said they never had to in the past.
A National Environment Agency (NEA) spokesman also told The Sunday Times that "pursuant to section 18(1) of the Town Councils Act, all town councils are responsible for maintaining and cleaning of all common areas, including hawker centres, in Housing Board towns".
"Consequently AHPETC is supposed to conduct regular spring cleaning including the ceilings, exhaust systems, fans, lights and other fixtures. There should not be any additional charges since the town council collects service and conservancy charges from the hawkers on a monthly basis," said the spokesman.
Each of the 42 cooked food stalls at Block 511 pays more than $120 for service and conservancy charges per month.
Some hawkers requested a meeting on the issue with town council officials on April 26 at which NEA officers were also present. The meeting ended in stalemate, said the stallholders.
The row comes just as the war of words between WP and the People's Action Party (PAP) in Parliament two weeks ago over managing agent rates seemed to have calmed last week. But even as netizens continue to discuss the showdown online, the debate could be given fresh fuel with these hawkers' concerns.
The latest dispute began after a scheduled cleaning of the market and food centre at Block 538. Ten stallholders said they had each paid $140 to their committee chairman in March for canvas covers to drape over their stalls during the clean-up.
But they returned after a five-day closure to find the ceiling and exhaust ducts had not been cleaned. "We were shocked when we returned to find the canvas covering our stalls still so clean, without dust and debris from the ceiling on it," said Madam Yong Heng Ran, 54, a carrot-cake hawker.
AHPETC acknowledged the ceilings were not washed during the exercise. "For Block 538 market, cleaning was carried out from March 4 to 7, with the individual stallholders doing their individual cleaning on March 8," said a spokesman.
"As for the cleaning of high areas, we were informed that scaffolding will be provided. However, on the day of cleaning, there was no scaffolding, hence our cleaners could only clean the reachable areas and not the ceiling and exhaust ducts."
A check with another food centre managed by the same town council, at Block 209, Hougang Street 21, found it is not standard practice for the town council's cleaners to wash those ceilings as well. But there will be a cleaning next month at the request of the hawkers there and each will have to pay $100 for canvas and scaffolding to facilitate the cleaning.
But the Bedok stallholders said scaffolding was always erected by the cleaning contractor, not the hawkers, in previous years.
"We were only told to cover our stalls with canvas and that the market would be closed for five days," said Miss Tan Siok Tiang, 48, who runs a clothes alteration stall at the market.
"I was told the actual cleaning took only one day. I think it's a joke played on us and we have to suffer loss of income for four extra days."
Further queries to the town council from The Sunday Times about why there was no scaffolding went unanswered as did an e-mail to WP chairman Sylvia Lim.
But with the cleaning for Block 511 scheduled for June 24 to 28, hawkers there said they have been told by AHPETC they would have to pay extra for the contracted cleaners to clean the ceilings and exhaust ducts.
A stallholder representative, who wanted to be known only as Mr Chan, said: "We were told by the town council that its contracted cleaners do not cover areas that are more than 2.5m from the ground, so they will not clean the ceilings and exhaust ducts."
The 55-year old drink stall owner, who was at the April 26 meeting, finds the extra charge "unreasonable" as he never had to pay it before. "We feel it is for the new town council to negotiate with the cleaners to include the cleaning of high areas."
Mr Chan said the hawkers' concerns had been raised with their MP Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap, at Meet-the-People Sessions earlier this month.
NEA told The Sunday Times that it has formally reminded AHPETC of its statutory duties.