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Rice with fish curry and a piece of fish - Terry Xu

Migrant workers go hungry in rich Singapore due to subpar catering services

Singapore is well known the world over for its meticulous planning and distinct skyline – the Marina Bay Sands, Gardens by Bay and Singapore Flyers are instantly identifiable as belonging to this small economic powerhouse of Southeast Asia.

The country’s building and construction sector which is valued at nearly S$30.5 billion in 2018 depends on a massive pool of blue-collar migrant workers from countries like Myanmar, Bangladesh, and India.

An article in the South China Morning Post highlighted that in a country with no minimum wage, migrant workers are paid a wage of only S$17 – S$20 per day for hard, laborious work usually working 10 to 12 hours a day. With such low wages, many workers tends to supplement their income by working overtime.

Working such long hours, many migrant workers are left with very little time to think about their meals. As such, many turn to caterers as a cheap solution. For about S$122 – S$136 a month, they get three meals a day delivered to their dormitories and work sites.

However, the article noted that while this seems like a good deal, the reality leaves much to be desired. The food usually comes in meagre portions, is nutritionally insufficient, and sometimes even rotten.

For breakfast, they usually get flatbread with dhal or curry. Lunch and dinner is usually white rice with curry and one portion of meat and veg respectively. For the kind of back-breaking hard physical labour these workers doing every day, the food they get leaves a lot to be desired. And while the food is prepared from scratch, breakfast and lunch is often delivered at the same time at about 6AM which means by the time lunch comes around, the food is stale or even rotten.

Caterers opt to deliver the two meals in one go to avoid double trips, which in turn fattens their profit margin. Of course, the migrant workers are the ones who feel it.

Even though caterers adhered to the national food safety regulations which require them to provide a time-stamp for pre-packed meals which indicate a recommended ‘consume by’ time – generally four hours from the time a dish is cooked – they know that workers can’t eat until much later. Yet they still deliver lunch packs in the morning.

One migrant worker named Hassan was quoted saying, “The food always arrives fresh but by the time I eat it, it has already become bad. Usually, I will throw away about half of the rice because I cannot eat it any more.”

Hassan’s experience matches those of some 500 workers who were interviewed by the Center For Culture-Centered Approach To Research And Evaluation (CARE), in partnership with non-governmental organisation Healthserve, for a two-year (2012 – 2014) research project on the kind of food that Bangladeshi workers in Singapore are forced to settle for.

The results showed that 86.2% of respondents said the food they get from caterers make them sick, 93.4% says the food is unclean while 94% said the food is unhygienic. The workers also described the food they are given as “foul smelling”, “rock-solid”, “feel like eating tyre”, and that at times the vegetables were “rotten” and insects such as cockroaches were found in them.

One reason the food goes stale or rotten is because they are left open to the elements. There are no food storage facilities in dorms and work sites. And in Singapore’s tropical climate, food left out can turn bad really fast. On top of that, stray rats and dogs sometimes get into the food packets before the workers can and during the monsoon season, the food can end up getting soaked and turn inedible.

The study by CARE in 2015 also found that 86.2% of respondents had fallen ill after eating catered food, and common illnesses included vomiting. One respondent said named Rahim said, “Gastric attack is common, we have sleeping and food problem here and those cause several types of physical problems. We would not feel weak if food and sleep were okay.”

Many eventually just forgo their meals and rely on caffeinated energy drinks instead as a means of staying awake and keeping hunger at bay. Another migrant worker said that energy drinks are cheap and the sweet aftertaste helps keep him awake. He continued, “But I’m not the only one. If you wait outside worker dormitories in the morning, you will see piles of energy drink cans.”

For those who live in dorms equipped with kitchens, the situation is marginally better. They can cook for themselves better meals but they are forced to rely on the in-dorm supermarket for their groceries. These supermarkets are much more expensive than the ones outside but as migrant workers spend the entire day working, they do whatever they can to maximise convenience and rest time.

“The nearest supermarket is very far away and by the time we all get back at the end of the day, we are all very tired. Every minute that we get to rest is important so we have no choice but to buy from the supermarket in the dorm even though it is expensive,” said R. Velmurugan, from India.

However, the article also highlighted how difficult the situation is for caterers as well. The food catering business is a lucrative one, with over 1.5 million foreign workers in Singapore relying on them for sustenance. It is also highly competitive.

To stay ahead, many business slash their prices. But that also means that quality drops as well. To meet the demand, a kitchen often operates for 24-hours a day, every day of the year. The labour intensive business then builds up heavy costs for manpower, logistics and fuel in expensive Singapore.

As you can imagine, the margins are rather slim. One seasoned industry player told the media that caters make a measly 30 cents per meal. So to maximise their profit, they cut corners by using subpar ingredients and consolidate deliveries.

The thing is, social worker Luke Tan said caterers were simply taking advantage of these desperate workers.

“Low wages mean that workers have no choice but to spend as little amount as possible on their food if they want to send money back home. They are willing to forgo their rights and sacrifice their health for a better life so this makes them ripe for exploitation,” said the operations manager at the Home Organisation for Migration Economics.

This food issue is part of a wider issue of exploitation plaguing low-wage transient migrant workers, said migrant worker activist Debbie Fordyce, executive committee member at Transient Workers Count Too. Many of them are forced to pay exorbitant recruitment fees to secure their jobs which are often dangerous and demeaning. Ms Fordeyce says this leaves them heavily indebted that they’re inevitably vulnerable to coercion and exploitation.

She added that employers should be responsible for ensuring their workers have access to reliable caterers or adequate cooking facilities. “Migrant workers play a key role in driving our economy. We should treat foreign workers humanely, not as disposable and replaceable labour,” she said.

In their 2015 report, CARE called for better monitoring and enforcement of food safety standards, and greater monitoring of licenses given to food caterers. This would hopefully protect migrant workers from such sub-standard catering services.