Singapore’s “Hawkergate”: Were There Other Ways To Handle It?

Set your search settings to cover the past year or so, and key in the words ‘hawkers’, ‘social enterprise’ and ‘Singapore’ and you will be greeted with article upon article of one of the most controversial topics in 2018. The issue of our local hawkers being the victims of unfair business practices first surfaced in August 2018 in the form of an article by local Singapore Food Culture Ambassador and Founder of Makansutra, KF Seetoh. Since then, there have been multiple articles, opinion pieces, etc. across mainstream and independent media platforms. The latest of these took the form of an extended Instagram story rant from Pat Law, the founder of social media agency GOODSTUPH. At the time of writing of this piece, it seems like the National Environment Agency (NEA) has finally made moves to review these social enterprise hawker centres (SEHC) and their management.

Reflecting on all that has happened thus far, we, as Singaporeans, empathise with the frustration and the helplessness of how the situation has become for our local hawkers. However, as a firm, we are particularly incensed by how the contracts between the management and the hawkers were handled. To borrow a screenshot from Ms. Law’s Instagram story:

In this example, both management and hawker wilfully ignored their responsibilities. Both did not make the effort to ensure that all communication gaps were tackled, and all parties were clear about the terms of the contract before signing. Ms. Law goes on to explain that there is a mindset from the hawkers that they do not want to ‘be troublesome’ or ‘be difficult’ for fear of reprisal in the form of being evicted from their stall.

At the firm, we do see this type of behaviour quite frequently when we have clients who do not read their contracts properly before signing, or worse, do not even have a contract to begin with. Without proper contracts, clients tend to lose a lot of their ‘bargaining power’ and fall victim to unsavoury or unfair business practices.

If we look more closely at the contractual relationship between the SEHC management and the hawkers, it’s between an organization and an individual. There is an inherent difference in bargaining power here, not to mention the already pre-existing preconceptions and attitudes that both parties have towards each other.

In Singapore Law, examples of well-known acts that are designed to protect us from unfair practices include the Employment Act and the Competition Act (designed to protect the consumers). In the case of the hawkers and the SEHC management, the extreme disparity in bargaining power manifested in the drama that is Hawkergate where it seems like hawkers were already disadvantaged because of their inability to understand English or ‘fear of authority’, which led to the signing of contracts which they did not understand. Even if they did understand the contracts, there was little each one of them could do as an individual to level up the power to bargain. Unfortunately, there is no specific legislation that helps in levelling the disparity of bargaining power for the hawkers, or any business for that matter. It is the duty of the business owner to review contracts and negotiate until all terms are satisfactory before signing any contract. In Hawkergate, it is only too easy to see how a bigger, seemingly more ‘powerful’ organisation will always have the upper hand, even though they should have been given the opportunity to properly understand all the clauses within.

So how are we going to resolve the situation? One way would be to wait for new legislature to be passed. However, that means more reviews, investigations, and ‘final report’ drafting by select committees, before things can move forward.

Hawkergate has prompted us to think of ways that hawkers can deal with the SEHC management in the future, all of which are already existing provisions in our laws. The crux of the matter, however, is the imbalance in bargaining power.

This can be achieved if hawkers band together to form a trade consortium, or if an existing association like The Federation of Merchants’ Association (FMAS) notices the situation, and decides to act for these hawkers.  The concept of collective bargaining is a concept borrowed from trade unions. As the hawkers are not technically employees, they cannot band together to register a trade union. However, they can band together to form trade consortiums or register trade co-operatives.

At the end of the day, if we were to go by pure contract law, there is really nothing that can be done, because there was a contract that was signed. However, if we begin to look at the social implications of the inequality of bargaining power, we are hard-pressed to say that the situation is at all fair. This is why, as business owners, it is always wiser and safer to understand the law, so that you will not be caught in unfavourable legal positions.

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Cover image credit: Honeycombers Singapore / Darissa Lee