Not your typical worker’s meal

By Seah Bei Ying

Most of us have seen some Bangladeshi workers having their packed lunches in void decks in heartland areas. Where the lunch come from? Did they buy curry and rice from the nearby coffee shop for their everyday meals? If yes, then how much did their costs come to?

These are fleeting thoughts that I’m sure have passed through our minds at one time or another. In the flux of our everyday busy-ness, such questions tend to go unanswered. In bid to better understand our fellow foreign workers I interviewed several workers to get to know more about their daily routine, in particular, food.

Meet Molla, a Bangladeshi worker who has worked in Singapore for three years now. He is one of the few workers who has had a “taste” of living in different types of housing. I am using “housing” loosely here for living conditions some workers are subjected are just not up to standard.  Molla didn’t move out of choice. He went wherever his boss directed. As he explains, “I move many times. Boss say move. Not I say.”  He has been shuffled from a dormitory to a factory to temporary housing to a factory-turned-dormitory. At each location, he has had to adapt to different eating routines – as if trying to settle in a foreign land was not already challenging. I can only imagine.

At some of the places Molla stayed, he and his fellow workers could cook their own meals. This was one of the better experiences he had, when he stayed at a commercial purpose-built dormitory such as in Tuas or Woodlands. The buildings are usually a 2 to 4 storeys high, divided into “apartments”, each with 10 – 16 beds. Some of these units come with kitchens where the workers can do their own cooking. At other dormitories, the sleeping apartments have no cooking facilities but there is a mass kitchen in a central location. There, the space is laid out with long tables, washing sinks, and fitted with either gas or electric stoves. Molla was lucky to have been put in such a dormitory with a mass kitchen – for a while.

Dormitory with mini-mart

Dormitory with mini-mart

Grocery is often purchased at the small convenience store below each dormitory; they have to pay out of their own pockets. Then, culinary skills are put to the test as Molla tells me, with a rather cheeky (or was it satisfied?) grin, “I cook. My partner no cook. He clean. I cook better!”

Molla shared his cooking and meal arrangements with one other worker, but different arrangements with more participants can be made.

Among the workers I interviewed, curry seems to be the grub of choice for Bangladeshi workers as they often cook curry with fish, mutton or chicken with vegetables to go with rice. Each preparation is usually of a sizeable amount which would serve not only as the evening’s dinner, but also breakfast and lunch the next day. Molla estimates that the ingredients for each meal could cost as much as $5.

Other accommodation

Even though there are quite a number of purpose-built dormitories, many workers are still housed in makeshift, temporary accommodation at construction sites or in factories converted to living spaces — sometimes illegally converted. Molla spent some time in these places too, as did Alam who joins in the conversation.

I ask whether they got to cook their own food as well when staying at such places. Alam and Molla immediately shake their heads. Instead, prepacked meals are delivered by caterers. They proceed to speak of the unappetising and monotonous they were faced with for months — if not years for some other workers.

Typically, the catering arrangement costs about $130 a month, for three meals a day. The amount is usually deducted from their monthly salary. Occasionally, some employers are reported to absorb this cost. Even then, it does not make the food any more palatable. As Alam says after a moment’s pause, “Bangla food boss give not nice. Cook is better.”

Adds Islam Mahabub, a worker under Hyundai who has worked in Singapore for one-and-a-half years: “Many times the prata give is hard and not nice.” He was getting roti prata and curry (sometimes not) for breakfast seven days a week.

That evening of interviews with Molla, Alam and Islam was an eye-opening one for me: It’s no wonder that many workers prefer to cook their own food despite it being a more expensive option simply because they get to have a say in what they eat. After all, there’s nothing like the simple comforts of cooked food done in a way they are familiar with. Little things like autonomy over food make a big difference in our lives. And variety, when one can cook oneself, is probably much better in terms of nutrition too.