Wednesday, April 02, 2008

ST: Staff crunch spells last orders for tze char stalls

Got this from the Straits Times (2 Apr 2008)

Staff crunch spells last orders for tze char stalls
By April Chong

MR HUANG Hui Liang, 40, served up his last plate of braised noodles at his tze char stall in Tampines in February.

Four months earlier, his brother had also called it quits at his Bedok stall.

Such stalls, fixtures in heartland coffee shops, whip up restaurant-style dishes - fish-head curries, soups, stir-fried greens and fried rice - for dine-in or takeaway customers.

The brothers had the same problem: They could not find enough Singaporeans who wanted to work for them - not at the rates they were willing to pay anyway.

No hard data is available, but those who lead coffee-shop trade associations say many tze char stalls are shutting down.

The way out, it would seem, is for these stalls to hire foreign workers willing to stand for hours over hot woks for less pay, but labour rules forbid these stall holders from doing this.

So although these tze char stalls are kings in the coffee shops in terms of the size of their stalls and their menus, many claim they are not doing royally.

For starters, their ability to whip up so many dishes from scratch makes them more labour-hungry than the average one-dish stalls that sell only, say, fishball noodles or chicken rice.

Tze char stalls typically need seven employees - two cooks, two kitchen helpers who assemble the ingredients, a server, someone to take the orders and collect money, and a dish-washer, or some variation of this formula.

The Manpower Ministry (MOM) allows only Singaporeans and permanent residents to be hired.

Mr Huang said he can pay $1,000 for a kitchen helper, and twice that for a cook.

He concedes the work is hard. The 12-hour work days typically start in the morning, with going to the market and preparing the food. More stalls now open for lunch and take a break before re-opening from 5pm till midnight.

He said his brother tried to get around the shortage of workers by hiring five foreigners illegally. He was caught and fined last year.

Aside from the difficulty in finding workers, he was also up against rising food costs; his rent was also going up from $5,000 to $6,500.

The average rent for a noodle stall is about $2,000.

Mr Huang said his operating costs left him out of pocket for six months last year. In better months before rising costs came along, he made between $1,500 and $4,000 a month.

His problem is common, said Mr Christopher Tan of the Foochow Coffee Restaurant and Bar Merchants Association, whose members account for a fifth of the 2,000 coffee shops here.

He said a growing number of tze char stalls run by association members had shut down in recent years, though he could not say how many.

Mr Wee Jee Seng of the Kheng Keow Coffee Merchants Restaurants and Bar-Owners Association, which represents about 300 coffee shops and stallholders here, confirmed the trend.

In the last five years, the associations have appealed to MOM at dialogues to reconsider its stance against foreign workers but have always received a firm 'no'.

A MOM spokesman told The Straits Times there were no plans to liberalise this rule and, as the stalls were small, they could be operated by the licensee with family help.

Veteran labour Member of Parliament Ong Ah Heng pointed out a difficulty with liberalising the hiring policy: 'If you open up the regulations, another 10,000 foreign workers will come in.

'Of course, they do contribute to the economy, but it will become a social problem that we cannot afford.'

The stallholders say that MOM's call to rope in family members does not solve the numbers problem.

Mr Ong himself has met a couple who could no longer cope with running their stall when the wife became pregnant.

Industry associations have suggested, for example, tapping senior citizens and housewives and offering them flexible work hours.

To this, Mr Kenneth Lee, 46, who is also short-handed at his Toa Payoh coffee shop, said he had few such takers even when he offered the 'market rate' of $5 an hour.

Sometimes, with this group, it is not only about the money. Housewife Ang Guat Khim, 54, who used to earn just above $1,000 preparing drinks, said she quit because she could not bear standing nine hours a day.

MP Ong said tze char stallholders simply have to pay more to entice Singaporeans to do the job.

Some tze char operators have hatched other solutions - not all legal - to get around their problem.

One is to hire foreigners on the sly. A chef from China, for example, will work for $1,800 a month, against a Singaporean's asking wage of $3,000.

Last year, 341 employers in the food and beverage sector were caught hiring foreigners illegally; 1,544 foreigners were arrested.

Another ruse: 'Borrow' foreign workers from their landlords - as coffee shop owners have been allowed since last July to hire a limited number of Chinese nationals.

The landlords do try to help, because the fortunes of the coffee shop are tied to that of the resident tze char stall, especially if it is one that pulls in the crowds with good food.

Coffee-shop operator Wee Jui Ho, 63, said he suffered a 60 per cent drop in business at his drinks stall when his tze char tenant closed shop last December because of a worker shortage.

He has not been able to find another tze char tenant, and will now try running the tze char stall himself. But he has no experience in this area and is aware that if he fails, he will have to end his 30-year-old coffee-shop business as well.

There is only so much coffee-shop owners like him can do. They could ask tze char stalls to pay better salaries but, as the coffee-shop merchant association's Mr Tan says: 'It's very hard to raise wages without raising the prices of the food, and this comes at a risk of losing customers.'

I'm shocked beyond words. How dare this MP Ong Ah Heng suggest that the reason why stall owners cannot find enough Singaporean workers is that they don't pay enough?

But seriously, this is a real problem. Tze char stalls are facing a real problem in getting workers because they are not allowed to hire foreign workers. On the other hand, when I was back in Singapore, I saw plenty of PRC waiters and waitresses in Chinese restaurants everywhere. It seems doubtful to me that restaurants in Singapore are not allowed to hire foreign workers. Isn't it unfair that tze char stalls are denied access to foreign labour while bigger establishments like Chinese restaurants aren't? The rationale for it is that MOM believes tze char stalls can get by with family members.

Excuse me, but don't the top honchos in MOM realize that families are getting smaller nowadays? Or that a tze char stall is a 7-man operation? Why should restaurants be given the cost-lowering advantage of hiring foreign workers but not their tze char counterparts?

To be fair, labour restrictions should equally applied both tze char stalls and restaurants. On the other hand, not too many foreign workers should be allowed into the food and beverage industry. One possible solution would be to fix the total number of foreign workers in the industry. This can be easily accomplished by issuing a fixed number of work permits for the industry every year and then letting restaurant and stall owners to bid for these work permits the same way aspiring car owners bid for COE in Singapore.

Come to think of it, maybe we should try that for other industries in Singapore.


Anonymous said...

If you fix the no. of foreigners that can work in bigger Chinese restaurants, all that will happen is that those restaurants will close down too because of a lack of manpower since locals do not want to take on what are perceived to be lower class jobs like service jobs and blue collar jobs.

It's as simple as that.

So it's down to 1) only tze char stalls closing or 2) both tze char stalls and restaurants closing.

By then where will you get your dinner? Haha! This is very amusing.

If the government lets foreign workers work in tze char stalls, locals will claim that they are snatching jobs away from locals when the jobs were exclusively available to them, they sniffed at such jobs. Which Singaporean mildly educated (with O level and above) want to work in such jobs nowadays? Even when I interviewed O level holders, they profess to only consider air-conditioned and "higher class" customer service jobs in telecommunication giants and hotels.


Fox said...

Claims that no locals would want to work in some jobs in Singapore just do not make sense in terms of basic demand and supply theory. Provided that you are willing to pay enough for the labour, there will always be takers for that job.

Of course, the price of a meal outside will go up. So what? Let it go up.