Operators of hawker centres have to inform potential stallholders of rental and operating charges before signing any agreement with them, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor said yesterday.
"They are not permitted to vary these charges over the term of the tenancy," she added in Parliament.
She was responding to Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh of the Workers' Party, who had asked if social enterprises managing hawker centres are audited to prevent hidden fees and charges.
Operators have to be transparent about costs, said Dr Khor.
These include optional costs for value-added services such as coin changing, which are also subject to the National Environment Agency's (NEA) approval.
She said: "These measures limit the potential profits, if any, of operators and ensure that rentals are affordable for stallholders.
"Today, the stall rentals together with operating costs at our new hawker centres are significantly lower than those in comparable food courts and coffee shops," she added.
The issue of added costs came under the spotlight after the media reported about the additional costs that hawkers pay, on top of rent, at centres run by social enterprises.
Although new and existing hawker centres continue to be owned and regulated by the Government, under an alternative hawker centre management model started three years ago, "socially conscious operators" have been appointed to run the centres on a not-for-profit basis, to keep food prices low, among other social aims.
Food consultant KF Seetoh, who wrote on his website that some of these hawkers apparently pay $4,000 a month, said it will be an uphill task to achieve these social objectives when these hawkers struggle to pay high operating costs. Seven out of 114 hawker centres are new centres managed by social enterprises and cooperatives, including Fei Siong Social Enterprise and NTUC Foodfare.
"We recognise that there have been concerns over costs to stallholders," Dr Khor told the House yesterday. "NEA ensures that rentals charged and essential services that contribute to operating costs are reasonable."
For example, a key tender evaluation criterion when considering bids from potential operators is the rental and operating costs that operators will charge stallholders. "Operators who propose lower rentals and operating costs will be considered more favourably," she said.
Asked by Dr Goh if NEA was aware of extra costs previously flagged by hawkers at the Ci Yuan Hawker Centre in Hougang, Dr Khor said management has since clarified that its $600 quality control management fee was optional. This is the same for its $50 coin exchange fee levied on hawkers. Of the 40 Ci Yuan stallholders, only nine have opted to pay the optional charges.
"It takes time for a new hawker centre to establish itself. The Government will continue to refine and improve the management model," she said.