Hawker centres could soon join restaurants and food courts in outsourcing the washing of their plates and bowls.
The National Environment Agency (NEA) has called for a tender for centralised dishwashing in 11 hawker centres, in the light of the labour crunch here.
It will "run some pilots" later this year, a spokesman for the agency told The Straits Times.
The change will benefit consumers, said the spokesman, with hygiene expected to improve when unwashed dishes are no longer piled up at the stalls.
The move will also allow cleaners to focus on clearing and wiping the tables, while hawkers can concentrate on preparing and selling their fare, the NEA added.
The National Trades Union Congress is supportive. It said that it has initiated talks between two dishwashing companies and NEA to pick three hawker centres for the trial.
Labour MP Yeo Guat Kwang said he jumped at the idea after hawkers complained to him about difficulties hiring dishwashers.
"Given the labour shortage and tighter foreign workers quota, outsourcing and automation is the way to go for jobs that locals do not want to do," he said.
Three firms have submitted bids, but the tender has not been awarded yet. One of them is GreatSolutions, which started its dishwashing operations last year.
Its general manager Anthony Chia said that the factory can wash up to 80,000 dishes each day based on one shift of 12 workers. But it is now running at only half its capacity, hence it is keen on the hawker centre market.
When The Straits Times visited the company's Senoko Drive factory last week, more than 10 workers were seen tending to three conveyer belt lines laid out in a plant about the size of nine Housing Board five-room flats.
The dirty dishes were soaked, washed and air blown dry before they were sorted and packed by hand into crates to be delivered to food courts.
But to enjoy the hawkers' business, the firms need to work a little harder. Despite the allure of being lean on manpower, centralised washing would likely mean higher costs for the hawkers.
For instance, they would need to buy new melamine cutlery that is more durable for transportation, said Mr Chia.
And hawkers must be prepared to pay more for the services too. Now, they typically pay cleaners $200 to $500 per month to wipe tables and return dirty dishes to the stalls.
Some top up about another $500 a month for the dishes to be washed. Others do it themselves.
But with central dishwashing, the total cost is estimated to be as high as $1,000 per month for participating hawkers.
So the programme should be an opt-in scheme because it does not lower hawkers' expenses, said Yuhua Hawkers' Association chairman Karney Ngai. "For those who wash the dishes themselves, it can be difficult to persuade them to pay for something that they are now doing themselves for free," she said. "And while most hawkers will not raise their prices, some who cannot absorb the higher costs might."