SINGAPORE - Operators of hawker centres have to inform potential stallholders of rental and operating charges before signing any agreement with them, said Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor.
"They are not permitted to vary these charges over the term of the tenancy," she said in Parliament on Monday (Oct 1).
She was responding to Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh, who had asked if social enterprises managing hawker centres are audited to prevent the use of hidden fees and charges.
Operators have to be transparent about costs, said Dr Khor. This includes optional ones for value-added services like coin-changing, which are also subject to the National Environment Agency's (NEA) approval.
"These measures limit the potential profits, if any, of operators and ensure that rentals are affordable for stallholders," she said.
"Today, the stall rentals, together with operating costs at our new hawker centres, are significantly lower than those in comparable foodcourts and coffee shops," she added.
Dr Khor's remarks came after Makansutra founder and food consultant KF Seetoh took issue with the new hawker centre operating model, under which social enterprises were appointed to run these centres on a not-for-profit basis.
Mr Seetoh said it will be an uphill task to achieve social objectives when hawkers struggle to pay high operating costs under the social enterprises.
In a recent post on his website, he had flagged the additional costs hawkers have to pay on top of rent, with some hawkers apparently paying $4,000 a month - which is double their monthly rent - to the operators.
Currently, seven out of 114 hawker centres are new centres managed by social enterprises and cooperatives: Fei Siong Social Enterprise, NTUC Foodfare, Timbre+Hawkers, Hawker Management by Koufu and OTMH by Kopitiam. Thirteen more hawker centres will be built by 2027.
"We recognise that there have been concerns over costs to stallholders," Dr Khor told the House on Monday. "NEA ensures that rentals charged and essential services that contribute to operating costs are reasonable."
For example, a key tender evaluation criterion when evaluating bids from potential operators is the rental and operating costs that the operators will charge stallholders, she said.
"Operators who propose lower rentals and operating costs will be considered more favourably, and they are not permitted to vary these charges over the term of the tenancy," she added.
Asked by Associate Professor Goh if NEA was aware of extra costs previously flagged by hawkers at the Ci Yuan Hawker Centre in Hougang, Dr Khor said operators have since clarified that the $600 quality control management fee and $50 coin exchange fee levied on hawkers are optional, and that some have chosen not to take these services up.
Asked by Mr Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) if the authorities would consider lowering rentals for a period, until hawkers' businesses pick up enough to be sustainable, Dr Khor added that there are no plans to offer subsidies at the moment.
She noted that the turnover rate for hawker centres run by social enterprises is comparable to that for other hawker centres, and that the authorities are keeping a close watch on the situation.
"It takes time for a new hawker centre to establish itself. The Government will continue to refine and improve the management model, so as to provide affordable food in a hygienic environment while allowing hawkers to make a decent livelihood," she said.