By Aaron Chua, based on interviews conducted in March 2018

At Transient Workers Count Too, we are mostly dealing with cases of salary and injury problems, but what do the day-to-day affairs of an average migrant worker look like? We got a glimpse of how their meals were managed when we recently interviewed a couple of workers.

To understand where it all begins, we interviewed Vinoth, a seasoned worker in the food catering sector.

“I study catering at Bharathidasan”, he says, naming the university he graduated from in his home country, India. After completing the one year of study, his friend, already working for a catering company, told him about a job vacancy. That was how he ended up in Singapore, where he worked for six years in catering.

The catering company that employed him had just six migrant workers and a few other Singaporeans. They did food preparation and delivery for other migrant workers. The work entailed long hours, he shares, but overall, he and his colleagues were satisfied with the job, as his employer provided accommodation and meals. Vinoth was only involved in cooking — he had thrice tried and failed to obtain a driving license — so to understand the experience of workers on the receiving end of the food, we interview Shahadat, a worker in the construction industry.

Employers of construction workers typically provide only accommodation, leaving employees to foot their other expenses. For Shahadat and his dorm-mates, it was no different. The first dormitory he lived in had a cooking area, so many of his dorm-mates opted to cook their own food — it was the most economical option. The second dormitory he lived in, however, was not as well-equipped, he says, leaving “everyone” to rely on catering companies, like the one Vinoth was employed at.

The five dollars per day Shahadat paid for getting three meals was a good bargain. Meals at coffeeshops and even at his workplace canteen would cost him four to five dollars, a luxury he can only occasionally indulge in when he meets up to chat with friends on off-days. He laughs knowingly when asked about whether he likes the catered food. But with salaries that typically range from $500 to $800, what other choice do these workers have?

There’s no room to be fussy. Shahadat was given two options: have all three meals provided at the stated price, or none at all. Everyone he knows picks the former.

Catered meals were a mundane affair. Breakfast was prata, accompanied by a sweet liquid. Lunch consisted of rice, fish, veggie and dal, while dinner was rice with a soup that had some meat. At least, he concedes, there were variations in the type of meat.

Even the distribution of food was a mechanical process. The catering van arrived as early as 4.30am, dumping the food—bundled individually in red plastic bags—in a central wooden cupboard at the dormitory. It comes again around 5pm to deliver the second round of pre-packed food. The workers take their packs from the box, checking their name against a list once they have taken theirs.

For the van to arrive at 4:30am meant that cooks like Vinoth would be working through the night.

“Morning catering people give two food: lunch and breakfast. Evening catering people give dinner”, Shahadat explains. Obviously, his food was cold by the time he ate it. Like everyone else, he brought his lunch with him when he went to work, leaving it in the common resting area and eating it during the afternoon break. Sometimes, the food would end up spoilt or the plastic bags would leak. He would then have to cough up a hefty price for the food at the canteen.

The exploitative nature of the work of migrant workers manifests itself most obviously in injury or salary problems. But it is also worth bearing in mind the other subtler consequences that arise from the low salaries we pay them. They can’t afford much, and one wonders what sort of nutrition they get paying five dollars for three meals.