“Foul-smelling curry, rock-solid fish with scales still intact…” — this was how Today newspaper opened its story (titled “Foreign workers served ‘unappetising, stale food'”, 19 March 2015) on the poor quality of food that foreign workers get. The story referred primarily to male workers at construction sites.

Based on an on-going survey by researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) and HealthServe (an NGO), it found indefensible practices in the catering of food to workers who have to work on site.

Today reported that:

Caterers said that breakfasts and lunches are delivered to construction work sites as early as 5am, and dinner at 5pm.

The National Environmental Agency (NEA) requires caterers to provide time stamps with their packed food, indicating when the food was cooked and when to consume it by. This rule can be seen in this NEA document.  However, the time-stamp only serves as information to consumers; there is no specific rule requiring expired food to be thrown away. In any case, as TWC2 volunteers have long observed, food packets delivered to workers almost never have time-stamps on them.

The newspaper quoted TWC2’s Debbie Fordyce: “The men complain about lack of protein, expired ingredients, and spoiled food. Men arrive in fairly good health, lose weight when they start working — a result of the hard work and long days as much as the food.”

Two days later, Today carried a follow-up article titled “Netizens outraged over foreign worker meals” (21 March 2015). In it,

Caterer TS Group said those guilty of providing such sub-standard food are often illegal caterers that are not licensed by the National Environment Agency (NEA). “To save costs, they (illegal caterers) send both breakfast and lunch (at the same time) … They operate on a low margin, which means they have to compromise on quality to cut corners,” said TS Group’s owner Sham Kumar. His firm charges about S$130 per worker, while illegal caterers may sell their meals for S$80 to S$90.

Much of the article however was based on reactions by employers, caterers and dormitory operators. The newspaper found employers, such as Transvert Scaffold and Engineering and Nishimatsu Construction who prefer to give their workers meal allowances.

But the suggestions by Dormitory Association of Singapore (DAS) president Kelvin Teo would make things worse. He suggested that workers be provided “storage space” at worksites to store their food and that caterers provide equipment to keep food warm. This does not address the problem of food being delivered way too early before the customary meal time. Keeping food warm only allows bacteria to thrive.