By Nadia Irwanto
Ask Singaporeans what they love and food is bound to come up. Singapore is known for its diversity of not just race and heritage, but also cuisine, and Singaporeans will brave any kind of weather to travel and queue for their food. From hawker fare to high-end restaurant dishes, food in Singapore reflects the rich mix of ethnicities that people here hail from.
Bhupinderdeep Singh came to TWC2 on 27 April 2016. Like many workers that have come before him, Bhupinderdeep was unhappy with his job and wanted a change of employer. He had only worked for ten days. It wasn’t his first time working in Singapore (he previously did upgrading and renovation work for 3.5 years) and it’s no secret among the workers that changing employer is not easy, so I couldn’t imagine what kind of problems he had that could have driven him to want to leave his job immediately.
It turned that out that there were three reasons.
First, Bhupinderdeep felt that he was ill-suited to his work of plastering ceilings, as the ceilings were often very high and he was a man of short stature. He worried that he would be prone to falling and getting injured, affecting his ability to work in the long-term.
Second was his long work hours from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m, with extra overtime on some days. Doesn’t it strike you as deeply wrong when men like him are willing to be in debt to come to Singapore to earn salaries as low as $1.50 per hour, and yet work hours unimaginable to the rest of us, even on their rest days? Why do we get to demand work-life balance while they don’t? The frequency at which work injuries occur, especially in the construction sector, is also tragically high, and when there’s a surplus of workers wanting to come in, there’s not much reason for a company to hire one who was previously injured.
It was Bhupinderdeep’s final reason, however, which took me aback. “I want to eat chapati, but my company no allow cooking,” he lamented.
I’m ashamed to say that I couldn’t take Bhupinderdeep’s last concern seriously at first. I thought to myself, What’s the big deal about having no chapati if you have enough food, which is more than what some other workers can say?
But as TWC2 treasurer Alex Au reminded me, food is such a peculiar thing. On one hand, food is one of our basic needs because it provides us with nutrients and energy. But that’s not what most of us care about. We’re picky about how our food tastes, and more importantly each of us are picky in different ways. And that makes food a culturally sensitive subject.
Cultural sensitivity is vital in building a diverse workforce, in promoting products to an international market, and even in the field of hunger relief. Lacking cultural sensitivity could mean offending clients and loss of revenue, as Hollywood learnt when it sparked outrage when screening “Hollywood Buddha” in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand, for ‘humiliating’ Buddhism. Cultural sensitivity is displayed by being aware of another’s religious dietary restrictions during a business lunch, for example. As the world’s largest fast-food chain, McDonald’s is known not just for having their most iconic items like the Big Mac, available anywhere, but also for having unique menus in different countries. Just creating one new menu item can take as long as two years, but to anyone questioning their methods, McDonald’s sales speak for themselves.
Then there’s the example from the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). Instead of forcing a foreign food product on local tastebuds, WFP developed “Sprinkles”, a nutrient-dense but tasteless powder that can be undetectably incorporated into any dish. It’s humbling to know how food can both connect and divide us; it’s a common theme of survival, but we also have to respect our cultural differences. [Footnote 1]
Unfortunately, signing a contract of service means agreeing to all stipulated terms and conditions of employment, including work hours and job scope. His employer is not obligated to accommodate his wishes, even if our hearts ache for him. [Footnote 2]
We informed Bhupinderdeep of his possible courses of action:
- Talk to his employer to request for a change of employer. [Footnote 3]
- Continue working until work permit expires or until any problem arises e.g. salary dispute, when he can then file a claim.
- Write in a resignation letter with a 1-day notice period. [Footnote 4]. The employer must pay for his air ticket and pay him his due salary of $180 for 10 days of work according to work permit regulations (although some employers try to claim otherwise). TWC2 can help write his resignation letter.
- Take up his friend’s offer to pay for his air ticket and give him an additional $400. This friend will tell the employer to cancel his work permit.
Bhupinderdeep was certain that his employer would not agree to let him change employer, so option 1 was out. It was quite clear to him and to us that option 4, then, would be the best choice for him as he would obtain more money and leave earlier, and he left shortly after making his decision.
We have not seen Bhupinderdeep since then. All he needed was some guidance to help him understand his situation and what he could do, and we gladly explained his rights and options to him. But in his brief visit, he reminded me that a simple chapati can represent just another Indian bread to me but bring so much comfort to him.
Nadia Irwanto interned with TWC2 for two months in the second quarter of 2016.
- Even if work permit holders find a new employer, the new employer can only apply to hire existing workers with agreement from the current employer. The only way to circumvent this if there are only 40 days or less left before the work permit expires. Work permits are valid for 2 years (the maximum duration) or 1 year. See http://www.mom.gov.sg/passes-and-permits/work-permit-for-foreign-worker/sector-specific-rules/hiring-existing-worker
- If an employee or employer wants to terminate the contract of service, he usually has to give notice to the other party. The notice period depends on the length of service; since Bhupinderdeep worked for less than 26 weeks, he only needs to give a 1-day notice period. http://www.mom.gov.sg/employment-practices/termination-of-employment/termination-with-notice