To prevent illegal subletting, hawkers clock in - with their mugshots

Face recognition scanner used to prevent illegal subletting of stalls rankles some

When satay seller Mujiman Sertrosentorno sets up his stall at Serangoon Garden Market every day at 9am, he checks in by peering into a face recognition device.

The $1,400 device, about the size of an iPad, is mounted on a wall at the back of the hawker centre. It captures the faces of the hawkers.

The device, installed by the National Environment Agency (NEA) and provided by a biometric company on a free trial basis, is to guard against illegal subletting and ensure that subsidised stallholders operate their stalls personally. There are about 80 cooked food and market stalls at the market.

Stallholders will not be able to enjoy subsidised rentals if they are found to be subletting, in other occupations and not attending to their stalls personally.

While Mr Mujiman, 51, said he does not mind that his attendance is being recorded, some hawkers interviewed complained of being treated like school-going children, and that it is especially cumbersome to check in and out on a busy work day.

"We feel like we have become employees, punching in and out so our bosses can keep track of us," said Madam Norhayati Shukor, 45.

An NEA spokesman said the machine could help increase the agency's operations efficiency.

The Sunday Times understands that the device also has a built-in wide-angle camera that can capture and monitor the state of cleanliness of the centre, and spot touting and illegal hawking. A thumbprint capture feature is not being used.

Mr Peter Soh, 65, the co-owner of Circle Enterprise, which supplied the face recognition device, said it takes about 1.5 seconds to do its work. Cleaners hired by NEA have also been using the device to clock in and out of work.

His company supplies biometric systems for attendance taking to 700 clients including those from the manufacturing and food and beverage industries.

He said that the data in the device can be stored in a thumb drive which NEA officers can pull out. If the system is rolled out to more hawker centres, the agency can access the data via a server.

The NEA spokesman said: "As the prototype machine has just been installed, we will need to assess its effectiveness and there are currently no plans to roll this out at other centres."

Mr Mujiman's wife, Madam Habsah Aman, 48, said the system has some merit. "It's better because some stalls keep changing hands and we keep seeing different faces. Who knows how often they change and charge for rental?"

But rojak hawker Teo Eng Hin, 66, believes there is no need for the device because the hawkers there are just tying to make a living. "Business has been very quiet since the opening of new malls in the vicinity and most of us hawkers have a hard life. Whatever little we earn is for our daily expenditure. We're not here to make huge profits."

melodyz@sph.com.sg