The shop was found to be closed 3 days after the media were alerted

Shao Haibing may have saved countless Singaporeans from food poisoning.

The Chinese worker came to Transient Workers Count Too on 10 September 2019 over his salary claim. He had gone to the police and it was the police who suggested that he go to TWC2. Shao had not received his salary for the previous month (August) and he wanted to know what to do.

In the course of his conversation with us, we noticed that what really incensed him was not the salary arrears, but the unhygienic conditions at his workplace. He had videos on his mobile phone, and we were aghast at what they showed.

Shao was an employee at a small bakery called Kim Guan Heng, at Block 39 Teban Gardens Road. The bakery’s front is a retail shop, with a baking kitchen at the rear. Shao said it supplies bread and buns to one of the largest food court chains in Singapore, and a very popular and well-known chain of kaya toast cafes. He knew this because his job included making deliveries. Millions of Singaporeans would have patronised the food court and cafe branches. However, since we have no means to verify the names of Kim Guan Heng’s customers, we won’t name them.

File picture of kaya toast, eggs and tea

We’ve collated some of Shao’s raw footage into two videos here without any editing. The first one shows a filthy workplace with dirt-encrusted walls and broken tiles. Containers look like they’ve not been cleaned since the day they were put to use. Roaches scramble over bags of flour. Droppings are all over the floor. Baking tins are stained.

The second video shows more wildlife. Flies rest on dough, more roaches scurry around and a cat ambles over the same table where dough is prepared. At the 49th second is a dead cockroach, which Shao said had been there for days.

Like all employees who work with food, Shao had to attend a food hygiene course mandated by the Singapore Food Agency immediately on joining the company. There he made his first attempt to alert officials to the unsanitary conditions of the bakery, though it’s not clear to us whether he was approaching the right officials. According to him, he was told to send an email instead. That he did too, but, reported Shao, nothing happened and the disgusting conditions persisted.

After he came to TWC2 and shared his story, we felt more action was needed. We alerted the press and Channel NewsAsia which aired a short TV story immediately (evening of 12 September 2019). The channel’s TV footage showed a major clean-up going on which suggested that the authorities had stepped in by then. We believe it was the news channel that had notified the authorities.

The value of whistleblowing

Looking at the accumulated dirt in the workplace, one surmises that the unhygienic conditions had persisted for years. In all this time, bread and buns have been supplied to well-known outlets and been a latent threat to public health.

It takes a whistle-blower to expose the problem.

Migrant workers work in many industries including places where our food is manufactured. They are the best persons to collect evidence and whisteblow should they encounter abominable conditions. Unfortunately, most migrant workers are too scared to speak up. Their jobs depend on the goodwill of their employer. Our laws and regulations allow employers to terminate employment and repatriate a worker at any time and this Sword of Damocles over workers’ heads is a big disincentive to speak up even when safety rules are flouted or laws broken at workplaces.

Shao was not the only foreign worker at this bakery. There were two Burmese workers there too (and a Singaporean), but all this while, they never spoke up — which only shows how unusual it was for Shao to do what he did, and do all Singaporeans a big favour.