It was reported in the Chinese media that the cleaning contractor at Jurong West Hawker Centre, unilaterally raised the stalls’ monthly fees by $150. Many of the stallholders were not able to bear this increase. And adding to the problem, the cleaners were said to have gone “on strike”. As a result, the tables are usually left with a mess of scattered cutlery and leftovers.

Mdm Tan, 52, a prawn noodle stallholder at Blk 505 hawker centre at Jurong West St 52, told reporters that about a week ago, the stallholders received calls from the cleaning company about the impending increase of the daily cleaning fees by $5 – $3 increase for cutlery collection and $2 for cutlery washing.

She said, “Each stall’s daily cutlery collection fee is $15 and cutlery washing is $23. If the fees are increased by $5, it adds up to a monthly increase of $150. With the poor business in this hawker centre, how to bear this kind of increase?”

On Wednesday (11 Feb), in the midst of their worries over the fee increase, they heard news that all the cleaners would not report for work. Later in the evening, it was confirmed by one of the cleaners and the stallholders were left scrambling for solutions.

The next morning (12 Feb), a reporter from the Chinese media visited the hawker centre. The reporter did not see any cleaners turned up for work. The stallholders resorted to using Styrofoam cutlery so as to avoid cleaning them. Styrofoam cutlery were seen strewn across tables.

Mdm Tan revealed that she had to spend over $100 on the Styrofoam cutlery, and she even had to clean the tables herself for those nearby her stall.

A customer, Mrs Chiong, an 80-year-old retiree, haplessly said, “Today, it was really messy and unsightly. I don’t dare to look around and just focus on my food, so that I won’t lose my appetite”.

Mdm Lee, a 50-year-old F&B assistant, added that she needed to push aside the dirty cutlery on the table before she could sit down to have her meal. It was very inconvenient.

Subsidizing the Styrofoam cutlery expenses

The stallholders raised the price temporarily to subsidize the cost of the Styrofoam cutlery. The move frustrated some of the customers. Mdm Tan revealed that she had raised the price by 20 cents in the morning. After being questioned by the customers, she felt that it was not right to transfer this cost to them. She reverted to her original price after charging a few customers the extras and chose to bear the cost herself.

However, chicken porridge stallholder, Mr Ong, 56, continued to charge his customers 20 cents extra, owing to the cost of 17 cents per Styrofoam bowl. His customer, a Mdm Lee, was very understanding and said, “This is a temporary measure, as long as it is not overbearing”.

Merchant Association: To resume work the next day

Representatives from the Merchant Association then negotiated with the cleaning company and said the cleaners will resume work the next day. However, the fee increase is still undergoing negotiation by both parties. It became clear that the cleaning company was withholding its services earlier due to the disagreement by stallholders to pay for the proposed increase.

The cleaning company has stated in its fee increase notification that the raise is due to the annual increment of work permit levy, utilities bills and the cleaners’ minimum wages imposed by MOM.

But the chicken porridge stallholder, Mr Ong, lamented that if the service from the cleaning company had been good, then the fees increase would be justifiable. However, after the fees were raised by the cleaning company about 1 to 2 years ago, there had been no improvement in the service standard. Worse still, the number of cleaners were reduced. He said, “Cleaning company claimed that they can’t get enough cleaners.”

NEA wants centralised dishwashing

In 2013, NEA called for a tender for centralised dishwashing (i.e. washing of dishes and cutlery) at 11 hawker centres. This was supposed to address the labour crunch.

NEA said the change would “benefit consumers”. The move would allow cleaners to focus on clearing and wiping tables, while freeing up hawkers to concentrate on preparing and selling their food.

However, it was also reported by the media then that with centralised dishwashing, the cost was estimated to be as high as $1,000 per month for participating hawkers, twice the market rate.

At the time, Ms Karney Ngai, Chairman of Yuhua Hawkers’ Association, said, “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 warned that some hawkers might raise their prices if they were forced to pay for centralised dishwashing.

She said, “And while most hawkers will not raise their prices, some who cannot absorb the higher costs might.”

The media then reported that 3 dishwashing companies had submitted bids. One of them was GreatSolutions Pte Ltd. A cursory check on GreatSolutions Pte Ltd’s ACRA listing [Link] shows that the company was incorporated on 16 February 2012. It has a paid-up capital of $1,000,000 and is owned by a person named, Pang Pok.

Further online checks reveal that Pang Pok is, in fact, a grassroots leader. He is a patron of Kembangan-Chai Chee CCC and received a Public Service Medal (PBM) on National Day 2011 [Link].

It’s not known if the hawker centre at Jurong West falls under the NEA’s centralised dishwashing programme and it’s also not known who the cleaning company that services Jurong West Hawker Centre belong to.

In any case, the price of hawker food is one of the most relevant indicators of our cost of living. The livelihood of hawkers is also most reflective of the standard of living of the lower to middle income class of citizens. Apparently, our social policies have not been effective and gone awry.

With such pertinent issue on hand affecting Singaporeans, what is our Desmond Lee, an MP of Jurong GRC doing? Busy digging up more dirt on AHPETC?

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