Town council drama: where do workers fit?

If you haven’t been following the recent spat between NEA and the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council, you really need to catch up.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) set off a chain of public retorts when it sent a formal notice to Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) late last month. This letter essentially stated that the opposition town council has not been fulfilling its legal obligation to clean some hawker centres under its jurisdiction, and quite bluntly reminded it to do so.

Under Section 18 (1) of the Town Councils Act, town councils are legally responsible for the maintenance and cleanliness of all common property, including markets and hawker centres. This includes a thorough cleaning of all common areas including drains, columns, floors, and fans, as well as ceiling, beam, and exhaust ducts at least once a year.

Apparently hawkers from two centres under the AHPETC’s charge had complained about having to pay extra fees for the setup of scaffolding required to clean the ‘high parts’ of those hawker centres, something the hawkers never had to pay before.

The NEA releases included a letter from a hawkers’ association stating that an official from AHPETC had told the hawkers they had to pay that extra fee.

In response, AHPETC’s vice-chairman Pritam Singh (a Workers’ Party MP) put out a media release refuting NEA’s allegations, noting “with concern the inaccuracies contained in the releases from NEA”. A tentative schedule for the annual cleaning of all five hawker centres under the town council’s care was also released, along with the assurance that AHPETC would bear all cost related to cleaning the high areas, including the necessary scaffolding and canvas costs.

According to this media release, a misunderstanding seems to have occurred earlier in the year when NEA told AHPETC that “the Hawkers’ Association will make the necessary arrangements with their contractors on the scaffolding erection/dismantling during the spring cleaning period from 4-8 March 2013.”

AHPETC had taken this to mean that the agency would take care of the entire scaffolding process, instead of merely providing the canvas and charging the hawkers extra for erecting/dismantling the scaffolding.

Some photos were also enclosed to show that the high areas of the hawker centres had been thoroughly cleaned in 2012, and a minor entreaty was made for “the NEA to play a constructive role in this matter, even though the political party entrusted with running AHPETC is not related to the government.”

NEA promptly shot back with an accusation: the town council and its vice-chairman had made “misleading and inaccurate” statements. Then just this week Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan took a strong stance to put an end to this heated “war of words” and urged the Workers’ Party (WP) to clean up the hawker centres under their charge and apologise to the hawkers involved in the long-running dispute.

Embarrassing media tussles aside, this whole debacle seems to be more about resolving political differences than about the actual cleaning of hawkers centres and much less about the welfare of hawkers, patrons, and cleaners.

We’re quite spoilt in general—living in this ‘clean and green’ city has got most of us taking cleanliness for granted. Of course everything needs to be clean, but we care so little about how it’s done and who does it that we’re surprised when things don’t work as smoothly as they usually do.

How ironic that just as we’re preparing to celebrate International Cleaners Day this month we’re not actually taking the time to think about all the work they put behind the scenes and instead get caught up in petty grievances…

For instance, why isn’t anyone discussing the fact that they still have to climb scaffolding to do their jobs instead of disagreeing on who should be paying for the scaffolding? Aren’t there any better or safer options out there?

True, we’re not privy to all the discussions and negotiations that go behind such decisions, but there must be many more efficient ways to spend funds and efforts than to figure out who said what to whom.

Hopefully this situation will quickly get resolved and we’ll be able to go back to discussing real pressing issues.





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