Oral Reply by Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment, to Parliamentary Question on Hawkers Affected by COVID Cluster
Mr Melvin Yong Yik Chye: To ask the Minister for Sustainability and the Environment (a) whether there are any plans to provide additional financial aid to affected hawkers who have been forced to close or seen their business drop significantly due to their proximity to a COVID-19 cluster; and (b) how does the Ministry intend to help draw the crowds back to affected markets and hawker centres once the COVID-19 cluster has closed.
1 Mr Speaker, I thank the Member for his questions. Please allow me to share with the house the information on assistance rendered to hawkers.
2 We recognise that hawkers as part of the F&B sector have been hit by restrictions on dining-in and the COVID-19 pandemic. When no dine-in was first implemented during last year’s Circuit Breaker, hawkers’ business took a hit. This continued even when dine-in resumed subsequently, due to the implementation of group size restrictions and default working from home arrangements. This is why the Government provided in 2020 a total of five months of rental waiver and three months of subsidies for table-cleaning and centralised dishwashing fees to help hawkers defray their operating costs. When tighter restrictions on dine-in was imposed again this year from 16 May to 13 Jun, and subsequently extended to July, the Government stepped in to provide two months of rental waiver and subsidy for cleaning services, from mid-May to mid-July. In all, seven months of rental waiver and five months of subsidies for cleaning have been provided since April 2020. Eligible hawkers would have also received $9,000 in financial support in 2020 via the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme, or SIRS.
3 In addition to the rental waivers, the Government also froze all hawker stall rental increases from Apr 2020 to Mar 2021 while allowing rentals to decrease according to market valuation during the same period. Let me explain how stall rental rates are determined. When new hawkers obtain vacant stalls in NEA-managed hawker centres via monthly stall tenders, the rent that they pay is the amount they tendered. There is no minimum rental. As the media has reported from time to time, some hawkers have successfully secured hawker stalls for as low as $1. There are also stalls where successful bidders have tendered high bids to secure a choice stall at their preferred locations. This open tender system ensures transparency and fair pricing, particularly for stalls in high demand such as those in locations with high footfall. These rentals are kept unchanged for the duration of the 3-year tenancy period.
4 When the tenancy expires, we do not put up the occupied stalls for tender as this would be disruptive to hawkers who have built their business and customer base. Instead, rentals are adjusted based on independent professional valuation that considers factors such as the footfall of the centre, stall size, and market conditions to assess the market rental.
5 The rent is then adjusted towards the assessed market rate. Stallholders who had initially tendered a bid higher than the assessed market rental at renewal will benefit from downward adjustment. Similarly, stalls with rentals lower than the assessed market rate will see an upward adjustment. Stallholders can choose a tenancy of one, two, or three years during their renewal.
6 Due to the impact of COVID-19, the valuation of the large majority of cooked food stalls has declined in FY2021. After the freeze in rent increases from April 2020 to March 2021, the tenancies of 341 cooked food stallholders were up for renewal between April to June 2021. 58% of them had their rentals revised downwards to the market rate. The decrease for this group ranged from $30 to more than $2,500. 37% continue to pay the same rental, same as their existing tenancy. The remaining 5%, that is, 17 of the 341 stallholders, had rental increases of between $10 to $300. For this group, after the increase, the median rental was $850, and even the stalls which had rental increased by $300 are still paying at or below the market valuation.
7 Most stallholders are aware that increases towards the market rental level are in fact moderated. In recent years, rental revision upwards at tenancy renewal have not exceeded $300. Today, the median monthly rent for a non-subsidised cooked food hawker stall is $1,250 and remains significantly lower than those at coffeeshops and food courts.
8 We are mindful that however small the group, any rental increase even if it has been moderated is always sensitive, and that this is a challenging period. Hawkers who continue to face financial difficulties because of the increase after the most recent 2 months’ rental waiver from mid-May to mid-July 2021 can approach NEA for assistance and NEA will do a careful review on a case by case basis.
9 These measures have in sum contributed to helping our hawkers sustain their livelihoods during a difficult period. Occupancy rates for cooked food stalls in NEA-managed centres have remained high, averaging at around 97%. A monthly average of 16 stalls were terminated from 2020 to May 2021, lower than the monthly average of 28 terminations pre-COVID period, from 2017 to 2019.
10 Mr Speaker, I would like to assure Members that the Government remains fully committed towards offering timely support to help our hawkers weather the challenges brought upon by COVID-19, and will continue to monitor the situation on the ground. For hawkers whose livelihoods are affected due to centre closures as a result of COVID-19 clusters, the Government will look into providing rental waivers for hawkers affected by the closure. In the case of the Bukit Merah View Market and Food Centre, hawkers operating there are already covered under the current rental waivers till mid-July. Any hawkers who have been served Quarantine Orders or whose incomes have been adversely affected due to COVID-19 can also continue to seek additional support via various financial schemes, such as the Quarantine Order Allowance Scheme, the Courage Fund, or the COVID-19 Recovery Grant (CRG).
11 For hawker centres impacted by COVID-19 clusters, it is crucial to regain public confidence and assure returning customers that there are no compromises to cleanliness and hygiene standards. NEA has been working with stakeholders such as cleaning companies and Town Councils to ensure proper deep cleaning and disinfection of common areas, and the adoption of robust workflows to clean and sanitise tables. We will continue to do so. Advisers can also work with their Grassroots and the Hawkers’ Associations to assure the local community that it is safe to return to these hawker centres when they re-open, and rally the community to support our hawkers. I want to thank and commend Advisers Ms Joan Pereira and Mr Melvin Yong and their Grassroots for galvanising support for the hawkers of Bukit Merah View Market and Food Centre and the hawker centres at Redhill, to help them overcome this tough period.