Friday, March 26, 2010

Stallholders wring hands over rent hike

WORRIED by an impending 30 per cent rise in rents next month, stallholders at five wet markets owned by supermarket chain Sheng Siong are now figuring out their next moves.

Several have said they will have no choice but to raise prices; others fear they may have to let helpers – usually family members – go; some say they have no choice but to pull out altogether.

But contemplating their future is not the only headache stallholders have.

In what could be a double whammy, residents angered by the prospect of costlier foodstuffs are planning to take their business elsewhere.

Consumers The Straits Times spoke to say they will turn to the comforts of the supermarket as the differences in prices narrow.

Said Mr Poh Bin Loo, 44, who frequents the Choa Chu Kang Street 62 wet market: ‘It is unfair. A big company buys the wet markets, increases rental and now we have to pay higher prices. Wet markets are supposed to be cheaper. Now what is the point of a wet market?’

Fajar Road wet market shopper Joyce Wong, 32, said she will head to the nearby Sheng Siong outlet instead.

Marine Parade GRC MP Seah Kian Peng, who oversees the Serangoon area, said an increase in food prices could start a vicious circle.

‘Rents are raised, stallholders increase prices, customers go elsewhere and the wet market fares even worse,’ he said, adding that stallholders should discuss strategies like opening for longer hours to remain competitive.

But for the moment, raising prices seems like a quick fix for stallholders.

At the wet market in Choa Chu Kang Street 62, yong towfoo, fruit, dried goods and vegetable sellers will be raising prices of their products by 5 per cent to 20 per cent next month.

Yong towfoo seller Jenny Kwek, for instance, will charge $1 for six pieces, compared with $1 for seven now. Plums at a neighbouring food stall will cost $1.40 each, up from $1.20. At a dried goods stall, a pack of 10 eggs will cost $1.90, up from $1.80.

‘We have no choice but to increase prices if we want to sustain the business here,’ said Madam Kwek, 55, who currently earns about $600 a month. ‘I am so scared I can’t keep my business going. But I have to try.’

Over at Choa Chu Kang Avenue 1, fishmonger John He, 39, may be forced to lay off one of his three workers because he has ‘no choice’. He pays them each a monthly salary of $1,500.

Still, he is in a better position than six other stallholders who say that they will be pulling out by the end of the month.

Vegetarian bee hoon stall owner Koh Ah Soi is one of them. The 60-year-old, who pays $1,700 in rent a month, said in Mandarin: ‘As it is, we are hardly earning anything. If we want to stay, we will have to pay rent with money out of our own pockets.’

Currently, stallholders at the five affected markets pay $1,500 to $3,000 in rent. Sheng Siong also halved the length of their contracts to one-year deals.

The rent hike comes after the chain’s controversial purchase of the five wet markets – one each in Serangoon Avenue 3, Bukit Batok West Avenue 8 and Fajar Road, and two in Choa Chu Kang – from private company Heeton Holdings in December.

The chain had wanted to convert them into air-conditioned markets, triggering public concern about the shrinking number of wet markets in Singapore.

Government leaders stepped in to say that the premises could not be turned into supermarkets and, under that condition, approved the sale.

On Monday, Mr Seah met stallholders from the Serangoon market to discuss their problems.

He has also written a letter to Sheng Siong on their behalf, asking it to reconsider the rent increase and the duration of the contracts. It has yet to reply.

‘I hope both Sheng Siong and the tenants can work something out to come to a compromise that will benefit all parties,’ he said. ‘The stallholders’ requests are not unreasonable. The lease is short for any business and the hike is on the high side.’

Sheng Siong declined comment when contacted.

The Housing Board, which approved the sale of the wet markets to the supermarket chain, will not be getting involved in what it sees as a ‘property transaction between two private parties’.

Its spokesman said: ‘HDB cannot impose new requirements on the new owner that are more stringent than those that the previous owner had to adhere to, such as controlling the rental charges.’

Source: Straits Times, 26 Mar 2010

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