GEORGE TOWN: A group of hawkers are protesting the RM900 monthly rent charged by the Penang government for them to re-occupy a food court that has been rebuilt after a fire three years ago.
They say the amount is a huge burden, especially when they never used to pay any rent at the same location before.
The food court, known as Astaka Hillside Tanjung Bungah, was previously occupied by 33 hawkers rent-free within the premises which was owned by the Prime Minister’s Department. They were only paying a monthly hawker licence fee of RM36 to the Penang Island City Council (MBPP).
In early 2020, ownership of the food court was transferred to the state government by Putrajaya, which was then led by Pakatan Harapan (PH).
Several months later, a fire destroyed the food court, throwing the hawkers out into the cold.
The state, through Chief Minister Incorporated (CMI), undertook the reconstruction of the food court at a cost of RM3.5 million. The new facility now accommodates 40 hawker spaces and is managed by a private company responsible for its maintenance.
Last week, CMI and the private company invited the original group of hawkers to a meeting where they were informed of the new terms to take up a stall at the food court, with a rental fee of RM20 per day and a cleaning fee of RM10 per day.
The hawkers held a protest outside Komtar today and handed over a memorandum to CMI, demanding that MBPP assume full control of the food court operations.
Speaking on behalf of the hawkers, activist Sophian Zain said RM900 was not cheap as claimed by a state official, who had compared the new rates to a market rate of RM1,500 a month at similar premises in the same area.
“How can a hawker selling chapati at RM1.50 a piece afford RM900 in rent?” he said.
Sundra Kuppusamy, 43, who ran a chapati and thosai stall at the old food court, agreed.
“For 20 years, we sold chapati and thosai. If the rent is so high, then I think it is no use for me to do business any more,” he said.
He added that he had been working as a part-time electrician to support his family of three since he lost the stall.
A pioneer at the food court, Ooi Leng Sim, 73, said the RM900 rent was exorbitant. She had been operating a fried hor fun and fried Hokkien mee stall since 1977 and now makes about RM500 a month doing the same from home.
“How am I going to make double that amount just to pay the rental and cleaning fees?”
Daniel Chow, 42, who runs a grilled fish stall, said he was forced to run his stall at a more expensive food court since the fire.
He said he was willing to pay no more than RM300 a month to return to the food court which he had previously occupied for 23 years.
Western food stall owner Maryani Mad Yunus, 62, said she started selling briyani from home after losing the stall and was keen on returning, but the RM900 rental means she has no chance to restart her business at the same location.
State executive councillor Zairil Khir Johari issued a statement in response to the protest, saying that RM900 was a reasonable price compared with other food courts in the area that are charging over RM1,500 a month.
“To assist these hawkers, we have agreed to give them a waiver for three months and an additional RM2,000 grant to restart their business,” he said.