8 unspoken problems that some Singapore hawkers face

On 1 Jan 2024, the GST rate rose from 8% to 9%, and the cost of ingredients has significantly increased. As a result, hawkers have likely hiked prices or reduced portions, to the dismay of some unhappy Singaporeans. But have we ever put ourselves in the hawkers’ shoes? Do we empathise with the problems they face?

problems hawkers face - KF Seetoh

I came across an article titled “The Problem with Hawkers” written by none other than the renowned Mr KF Seetoh, the founder of Makansutra. And trust me, I was shell-shocked when I read it.

Cramped spaces, long hours on their feet, demanding customers, no time to visit the washroom— you thought you knew all their woes. But not after what Mr Seetoh shared— he is indeed a hero to all hawkers.

problems hawkers face - hawkers
problems hawkers face - hawkers

After leaving my 14-year career as a chef life in the F&B industry and joining Sethlui.com as a content writer for 2 years now, my love and respect for hawkers has skyrocketed. I’ve seen their struggles, listened to their stories and challenges, and developed friendships with many of them (I love my job!).

And with that, let me share a list of 8 unspoken problems that some Singapore hawkers face at Social Enterprise Hawker Centres (SEHC), as depicted by Mr KF Seetoh.

Do note that these problems do not apply to EVERY food centre, just in case some keyboard warriors do decide to attack me in the comments section (rolls eyes).

1. Unsubsidised stalls

Yup! If you think hawkers have it easy and get the stalls at subsidised rates, you are wrong. Instead, they have to bid for their stalls under NEA regulations. According to an article posted on Mothership in Nov 2023, a Golden Mile Food Centre hawker stall’s bid reached almost S$6,000.

Well, if it was back in 2013, new hawker stall owners could’ve taken over from existing stall owners without a fee, but NEA has since discontinued it. It looks like my friend who has a stall at Amoy Street Food Centre is sighing with relief.

2. Monthly rentals

problems hawkers face - hawker centre
problems hawkers face - hawker centre

Have you visited a hawker centre and thought to yourself, “Why isn’t there an old-fashioned wafer ice cream stall instead of the same-old duck rice or ban mian establishment that we spot everywhere?”

That’s because the SEHCs charge an average rental cost of S$2,000 (GST included) for any kind of food sold. As a result, hawkers have no choice but to sell food that can earn profits and is popular with Singaporeans.

3. Pay for cleaning & washing of utensils & crockery

Besides an average monthly dishwashing fee of about S$650, hawkers at some of these SEHCs have to top-up S$6 for every rack of about 30 plates and bowls— sometimes, a few racks are needed per day! Additionally, Services and Conservancy Charges of about S$380 also need to be paid (Amoy Street Food Centre charges S$175).

Luckily, my hawker friend at a food centre in Hougang doesn’t need to pay for the aforementioned extra fees since it’s included in the rent. However, he still needs to fork out S$4,000.

4. Must offer S$3 meals & 30 monthly “pay-it-forward” meals

The S$3 budget meal initiative is catered for the financially challenged or for senior citizens who are not working. But you meet well-to-do customers who take advantage of this. Can you imagine if every customer orders the S$3 meal? How on earth does the hawker earn enough to pay for his monthly rent then?

For newer hawker establishments, some hawkers are being forced to do “charity” by offering 30 free meals at their own expense (not for older food centres). I really agree with Mr Seetoh that charity should come from your own sincerity and not based on a contract.

5. Banned from using their own crockery

Some hawkers aren’t allowed to use their own plates and bowls. They have to purchase it from the SEHC ‘approved’ supplier which marks the SEHC company logo, with a minimum of 300 pieces for each type of ware.

Fortunately, my friend at Amoy Street Food Centre is able to use his own crockery and fully express his desired presentation.

6. Forced to use gas supplier chosen by the SEHC

problems hawkers face - cooking with gas
problems hawkers face - cooking with gas

Suggestions by the hawkers to utilise a more budget-friendly and equally reliable gas supplier were rejected by the SEHC. That’s it— all efforts to save money are gone.

7. Hawkers must have valid leave of absence, otherwise pay S$100 

If hawkers at some of these SEHCs need to take annual leave, MC, or leave for emergency purposes, it must be approved in advance. Otherwise, a S$100 fine will be imposed. So does that mean if a hawker is suddenly down with a bad fever and needs to take a last minute 3-day MC, he has to be fined S$300? That’s ridiculous!

8. Profit percentage & additional space charge

problems hawkers face - additional charges

If the hawkers have good business and hit their sales target; hooray! It means that they can finally earn profits. But no! Some of these SEHCs have to ruin it and charge a profit percentage, known in the industry as Gross Turnover (GTO), of up to 15%.

And WHAT? Hawkers are even charged for the tiny, inadequate space where suppliers leave their goods if they arrive early? That’s a little too much, isn’t it?

These 8 problems are just the tip of the iceberg. Mr KF Seetoh’s article addresses more issues, and we really need to help our hawkers.

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