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By Alex Au
The above photo was taken around 11:30 am at a void deck below a block of flats. It shows packets of lunch on a broken chair. There were roadworks going on nearby and these packets were almost surely lunch for the crew. What’s not in the photo was a Town Council cleaner using a high-pressure jet to wash the void deck. He was only about six to eight metres away.
As a story in Today newspaper (19 March 2015) highlighted, the issue of food quality provided to on-site workers should be a cause for concern.
While Transient Workers Count Too has not carried out a systematic study of this issue, from anecdotal mentions by workers under our care, our sense is that Today newspaper described the situation quite well. The reason we have not researched this in detail is that food quality is not among the pressing issues we at TWC2 have to deal with. The typical worker who comes to us for help would have lost his job and have far more urgent issues on his mind, such as medical treatment for injuries or salaries owed to him. The poor quality of food he was given while he was working would by then be history.
Construction and marine sector workers are usually housed by their employers in dormitories. The term ‘dormitory’ is used loosely here. Not only does it include the large commercially-run fenced-in compounds with 5,000 to 10,000 workers per location, we also use it to mean converted shophouses or industrial premises, housing 50 – 500 workers. Some of these places have kitchen facilities, or spare space that the workers themselves have turned into make-shift cooking zones, But increasingly (according to workers) the larger dormitories no longer permit cooking on premises.
In any case, even when there are cooking facilities, many workers don’t avail of them. Given their long working hours and distance from markets, it may simply be impractical.
Hence, catered meals is the most common way workers get their food.
Caterers — and that may be too glorified a term, since many may be unlicensed, according to Today — usually make two deliveries daily: one before dawn in which packets of breakfast and lunch are delivered together, and another round at sundown, in which dinner is delivered. They are delivered to the dorm, not to the worksite. This is why the custom is to have lunch delivered before dawn too, because by 7am, the workers would be boarding lorries to go to site.
What this implies is that lunch is largely cooked in the middle of the night. Yet it isn’t consumed till some twelve hours later. That’s plenty of time for food to get stale or rancid and bacteria to multiply.
The National Environment Agency (NEA) requires caterers to time-stamp their food with advice to consumers that the contents have to be consumed within four hours of preparation. Today newspaper said that few caterers time-stamp their food. If they can get away without being licensed, it must be a joke to expect them to care about time-stamping. In any case, there appear to be no penalties for serving food that is more than four hours old. Given the systemic disempowerment of workers through regulatory and economic constraints, they are hardly in a position to complain either.
Another side to the problem is that meals have poor nutritional value, consisting, for South Asian workers, a whole lot of white rice and too little meat or vegetables. This is largely a function of low salaries. Rare is the employer who provides meals within the overall compensation package. Instead, the most common arrangement is for employers to arrange a caterer, and deduct a monthly sum from each employee’s salary. $130 a month would be fairly typical, but that really means $1.50 per meal for about 90 meals. There is not a lot any kitchen can put into a meal at that rate, not forgetting the cost of delivery.
As for expired and contaminated food, breakfast and dinner may be easier to solve than lunch. Strict enforcement of licensing and time-stamping (with new penalties) will help. So will freeing workers from regulatory constraints that bar them from switching jobs, for giving them this freedom means they can vote with their feet if treated badly by their employers.
The lunch problem is far more intractable. More interestingly, an examination of this problem reveals a broader problem with Singapore’s migrant worker situation.
Expecting caterers to deliver lunch, at (say) 11 am to work sites is possible, but it will surely have cost implications. This too then compels us to address the question of low salaries. They are low partly because bargaining power has been stripped from workers by tying them to employers under the Work Permit system. Moreover, the State increasingly claws a bigger and bigger portion of their could-have-been salaries through the steady rise in foreign worker levy. There are many cases where the employer pays as much to the government in levy as he pays to his workers by way of salary (even with overtime pay included). Between government, employer and employee, there is a tendency to use regulatory power to extract economic gain, leaving the worker (the most powerless party) worst off.
Lunchtime delivery to work sites is also more complicated logistically, especially for construction workers. It is not uncommon for crews to be moved from one site to another mere weeks apart; it is in the nature of phased construction work. The electrical or airconditioning subcontractor for example, goes in to do his part only at a certain point in the total construction schedule. Once his part is done, his crew moves on to the next project. The caterer has to be flexible enough to be continually finetuning his delivery routes. That said, such logistical complications can be solved. It just requires a bit more management resources — but this too has cost implications.
Another way around the problem is not to have lunch catered at all, but to let market forces respond to demand by allowing food trucks and nearby hawker centres to serve this niche.
Singapore’s extreme reluctance to licence food trucks is legendary. Adopting this solution to migrant worker meals therefore requires a wholesale dismantling of policy and attitudinal vetoes.
Workers buying lunch from nearby hawker centres may seem like an easier solution, but a closer examination reveals yet more complications. Firstly, some construction sites are quite distant from hawker centres, so it is not a comprehensive solution. But even when there is a hawker centre nearby, serving construction crew raises additional considerations not often factored in by our hawker centre management regime.
Begin with the question of food tastes: While Chinese construction crew have no great difficulty finding food in our hawker centres, South Asian workers have very few choices open to them. Our hawker centre food mix is regulated to cater to Singaporeans, not migrant workers. Yet reshuffling the food mix among hawker stalls presents difficulties too. It may mean relaxing the requirement that foreigners cannot bid for stalls in our hawker centres. It’s unrealistic to imagine Singaporeans cooking food to suit foreign worker tastes. We will need foreign hawkers. But foreigners are not even allowed to work as hawker assistants (see this page at MOM’s website). How to provide food that suit Indian, Bangladeshi and Burmese tastes?
Even if we did, could workers afford hawker centre prices? A typical meal at a hawker centre nowadays is at least $3. That’s twice the $1.50 per meal rate that they are currently paying. Rent levels are a serious factor. So we’re back to a cost-and-salary conundrum.
And if we relaxed the rule about foreigners operating hawker stalls, and have more migrant workers congregating and eating there, will Singaporeans in the neighbourhood then complain that they feel crowded out of their local eating place?
Additionally, there is the difficulty that construction projects are time-delimited. When the nearby project is over, the hawker stalls may find their customers have vanished. The transient nature of construction crew traffic conflicts with inflexible contract terms for renting stalls. Clearly, far more imaginative solutions to worker meals are needed.
Essentially, what this discussion about meals reveals is how little infrastructure provision there is for the large numbers of migrant workers in our midst, how little thought has been given to these issues. There is a lot of attention paid to security issues — how to confine them, stop them from drinking, from rioting, from striking, from mixing with Singaporeans — but hardly any attention to provision of essential services such as meals (or for that matter, medical care). Only lately have we begun to grapple with the issue of poor housing. We haven’t yet attended to the question of affordable medical care, and there will surely be the issue of social spaces to come.
It underlines the tendency at the policy-making level to see the migrant worker issue through the perspective of threat and to deal with it through efforts at control and invisibilisation. How to extract economic benefit, particularly to the State, comes next. Provision has long been far from priority.
It says quite a lot about the calculating cold-heartedness of a society and its government to chalk up such a record.
TWC2 is an organization that is dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers when they are in difficulty. We are motivated by a sense of fairness and humanity, though our caseload often exceeds our