Jilted by the system

by: Ghui/

Adrian (not his real name) has been selling food at a canteen in a university in Singapore for 6 years. Each contract lasts for 3 years and Adrian has successfully completed 2 terms. Earlier this year, he submitted a request for a further 3 years. He was not anticipating any changes as his food was generally enjoyed and business was steady. In the second week of May, he was sent a letter informing him that his contract was not to be renewed and that he was to clear out by 31 May 2011. No reason was cited.

Adrian was shocked as he had no indication that he would be rejected after 6 years. As far as he was concerned, he had complied with all regulations and had done nothing wrong. He simply could not understand why his livelihood was being so unceremoniously removed from him without explanation. With a family to feed, he is understandably worried.

Perhaps administration wanted to be efficient and did not think twice about the fact that this was someone’s entire life, his means to survive and feed his family. By informing someone in the second week of May that they have to clear out by the end of the month is truly callous.

Has a thought been spared for the poor man who now has less than a month to secure another premise? It is not easy to clear out 6 years of your life and look for a new premise in under a month. At the same time, the bills have to be paid and the children have to be fed.

Since a reason was not given for why his contract was not been renewed, Adrian can only speculate. Perhaps it was that one time when a professor complained that he has used a microwave to heat up his food.

In a bid to speed up long queues and ensure that customers are served in a timely fashion, Adrian sometimes uses a microwave to heat up his food. I, for one have no issue with this. I have seen many food sellers do this and to me, it is just part and parcel of the food business. Restaurants do it too. The only difference perhaps is that food vendors in canteens have to do it in front of the customer.

In Adrian’s case, a particular professor complained to the canteen supervisor who insisted that Adrian remove all of his microwaves overnight with immediate effect. When Adrian tried to explain that the use of microwaves to heat up food was commonplace, he was informed by the canteen supervisor that a professor had complained and therefore the offending microwave had to be removed.

It would appear that the canteen supervisor never once thought to question the professor on this seemingly illogical complaint. It was a case of someone more senior to me has said this, so I have to press down on someone lower on the ‘food chain’ to ensure that it is done, even if it appears nonsensical. No investigation was done. This mentality must be eradicated. Those high up in the ‘food chain’ can be wrong too.

Adrian is but one of the victims of our “efficiency above all else” system. While being fast and effective are of vital importance in remaining competitive, a balance must be struck such that individuals like Adrian are given a chance to make a living.

Adrian is willing to work hard and has indeed worked very hard in the past. I understand that he works from 7 am to 8 or 9 pm from Mondays to Fridays and half days on Saturdays. Every Sunday afternoon, he has to go back to his stall to prepare for the week ahead. The spoils for his toil are not high either. Each dish on his menu is only priced between $2.50 and $3.50. On top of that, Adrian has to give presentations and attend interviews when his contracts are up for renewal.

Adrian does not begrudge the hard work or the hoops that administration and bureaucracy has made him jump through. What he feels is the stink of being jilted by the system despite his hard work, the frustration of not being given a reason and the stress of having to secure new work and pack up his old livelihood in less than a month. At the same time, he does not have the energy or the time to question the system. He has a family to feed and even if he had the time to question the system, would they pay any attention to him?

I am not criticising the quest for quick and competent resolution of administrative matters. However, there is such a thing as being efficient for the sake of being efficient. In this case, would it have hurt to type a few extra lines in the letter, explaining to Adrian why his contract was not renewed?

If that is too much to ask, can they not give him a little more time? He is a human being and needs time to mentally prepare and emotionally accept the termination without reason. He could also do with a few extra weeks to search for alternative premises and/or employment and pack up. In the interim, he can continue selling food such that there is a seamless handover between him and the new vendors such that the students are not inconvenienced in any way.

The plight of Adrian reminds me of our need to help fellow citizens and to continually raise awareness for those who have fallen through the cracks of our system.

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