Food industry welcomes plan to reduce reliance on manpower

The food industry has welcomed a government plan to help the sector become more productive and less reliant on manpower.

Ready-to-eat meals and cashless payments were some of the innovations recommended under the Food Services Industry Transformation Map launched on Thursday by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

Mr Hong Poh Hin, chairman of the Foochow Coffee Restaurant and Bar Merchants Association, which has more than 400 members, said such technology solutions are a step in the right direction.

Other countries, such as Malaysia, where some workers in Singapore's food industry are from, also suffer from manpower problems, he noted.

But Mr Hong, who owns a coffee shop in Serangoon Avenue 4, warned that a high-tech environment may mean the need to employ more educated workers who command better salaries.

He said higher salaries could lead coffee shops to raise prices, which will not sit well with consumers. Many workers already earn more than $1,000, he said.

Spring Singapore, which helps enterprises here grow, said on Thursday that the food services industry contributes 0.8 per cent of gross domestic product but employs about 160,000 workers, or 4.5 per cent of Singapore's workforce. The road map aims to make possible a productivity growth of 2 per cent a year on average in the food services industry from now to 2020.

Restaurant Association of Singapore president adviser Andrew Tjioe said: "We know this is the way to go. If we keep relying on manpower, we will not survive."

Mr Tjioe, also executive chairman of the Tung Lok Group of restaurants, said it takes just one person to operate two robotic cooking machines that can cook 60kg of food for Tung Lok.

But he acknowledged that some smaller operators may not enjoy the kind of scale that would justify the cost of implementing such technology solutions.

Mr Danny Yeo, 67, a retiree who eats out at least once every day, said he welcomes moves that alleviate manpower problems, with an example being cashless payments.

He said it is hard to get the attention of staff in eateries sometimes when they are busy, so self-ordering through a machine would help.

But he is not keen on food served in vending machines. "The quality is likely to suffer. We are already slowly losing good hawkers and good food," he said.

He would be happy to know then that there are some - such as Mr Benny Se Teo, owner of restaurant chain Eighteen Chefs - who are reluctant to replace people with machines.

Mr Teo said: "Even if there is automation, you still need people for the human touch. It's like your mum cooking for you."

This article was first published on September 10, 2016.
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