Some time back, this photo caught my attention. It was posted by a celebrity chef on Instagram, relating to a TV show about Hawkers.
Here’s a quiz for you.
There are so many plates piled up high. Doesn’t it seem that they’re on their way to wearing Rolexes and driving Mercedes?
Well, I beg to differ. Let me give a quick explanation…
From the picture, there seem to be around 200 plates.
Selling 200 plates at $3/plate will give $600 in revenue.
Cost of ingredients should be around $1.50 which gives us a tidy profit of $300.
But wait… That’s not all.
Assuming only 4 off days per month, and also assuming a combination of cheap rental and low utilities of $120 per day (I deliberately based my calculations real low for uncertainty. Just to let you know, there are many hawkers that easily surpass this hypothetical figure…)
TA-DAH! We are left with $180 of cold, hard cash.
It’s going to be crazy cooking and serving 200 hungry customers all alone, so two hawkers will probably end up with $90 each.
I’m not finished yet…
Taking a reasonable time of 1 – 1.5 minute to cook and serve one plate, these hawkers will probably slog for 4 hours of non-stop, fast-paced cooking. Add on prep and cleaning time, and they’d have earned $90 for 10-12 hours of back-breaking work with only 4 rest days a month. (My calculations might not be exact, but it should be close enough)
That’s not all. In a business, there’s equipment to maintain, 20% CPF to deduct, insurance to pay, etc.
And this take home wage of $72 ($90 - $18 CPF deduction) is for a mildly successful hawker stall with plates stacked up to the sky.
No wonder, few youngsters are willing to join the hawker trade.
What I’m going to say is highly provocative and may ruffle some feathers... But it’s the unvarnished truth.
When I started, my foremost mission is to make people happy through food.
I still do.
In fact, all this while, I’m willing to take home less to provide more value to you.
Because I know, as a consumer just like you, we want the best bang for our buck.
But as business owner, I also know that artificially depressed pricing will hurt someone along the chain. And mostly, it’s the hawker assistants at the losing end.
The game is such that prices are being depressed to remain competitive. Good for consumers like us. Bad for low-wage hawker assistants that do not possess the knowledge and skill to get out of this sticky web. And thus, this become their fate in life.
It’s as what they say, ‘Work till you die.
As an insider in this cut-throat hawker industry, I’d heard first-hand, some wretched stories …
The unspoken rule is such that hawker assistants are poorly paid. Why?
Hawker food is meant to be cheap. So I can’t afford to pay you good wages. And so, this unspoken rule became cast in stone. This becomes the industry’s standard.
I personally know of a hawker assistant trapped in an endless pit working 12 hours a day. Work got pay, no work no pay. Is require to work on public holidays with no annual and medical leave benefits. Only one off day a week. Zero CPF contribution from the employer. All these for less than $1800 a month with the added bonus of health issue sustained through repetitive injury working in tough conditions.
This is cheapening someone’s time. In fact, this is pure exploitation. But this is also how they can afford to sell you a plate of chicken rice at $3.50.
This is a shadowy, dark-alley kind of affair. It’s illegal but rampant in this industry. Just because we can get away with it doesn’t mean it is right.
It is a fact that office jobs are paid more handsomely than manual labour. Even so, we should not undermine the value of such work.
Just because someone was dealt with poor cards early in life doesn’t mean they should not have a chance in life.
Hawkers use their blood and sweat to cook each dish. And if they scale up the volume served, it’s through sheer hard work and effort. They deserve every single reward they are entitled to.
Recently, I sent my vacuum machine for servicing. I was billed a service charge of 4 man-hours at $100/hour excluding parts. Total bill was $662.33 for probably an hour or two job. This is what MNCs are charging and you should count yourself lucky if you’re working for one.
In life, everybody is dealt different playing cards. Some are lucky, some not so. Four new members will be joining my team soon. I insist on paying my hawker craftsmen and women a good wage. I believe it should be fair and decent for the long, back-breaking work they will be doing.
This is a responsibility. A huge one. My team’s well-being and course in life are somehow now intertwined with my decisions. I value my people and it’s my duty to ensure they are given the wages and working conditions they deserve.
Like you, they need their family time. They have personal needs. They must be able to pay their mortgage loan and still survive. To go on a holiday trip with their love ones once in a while.
Like MNCs, I would like to introduce things like Family Day, good bonuses, annual staff retreats and a host of goodies for happy, productive workers.
At the end of the day, what we want is a bowl of delicious noodles cooked by smiling artisans lovingly each time.
Happy people. Better society.
Not exhausted, grumpy cooks that couldn't care less about what they are serving.
The question is this:
Should we maintain the old unethical ways? Or do our part in lifting up the hawker industry in our own little way.
It won’t be easy. This will be a tough journey faced with many obstacles.
But as they say, “A journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step. “
I will be adjusting our price to $8 for small bowl and $11 for the medium bowl. This increase in margin will go solely towards wages and benefits for my hawker assistants.
As promised, I’m going stark naked and upfront on the selling breakdown of each component in our dish.
Noodles - $2 (crafted exclusively to my specifications and seasoned with imported dried shrimps and kelp that cost $97/kg.)
Whole Egg - $1.50 (I use USA-patented pasteurized egg that cost double the price of ordinary eggs.)
Cha-su per slice- $1.30 (Premium pork belly cut that is slow-braised for 36 hours.)
Wonton per piece - $0.80 (Jumbo-size wontons made with fresh 100% fresh Indonesian Pork with huge chucks of shrimps.)
Potato-wrapped Prawn - $1.30 (Crispy prawn fritter that is fried-to-order in fresh veg oil everyday.)
As you can see, this is still very good value and yet allows me to sustain the business with a reasonable margin to pay my team a good wage.
Let’s be honest; a comparable bowl in a ramen outlet will probably cost double this price.
I sincerely hope to have your continued support！