A typical catered meal for migrant workers
By TWC2 volunteer Jackson K
Here in Singapore, infrastructure is erupts into the sky and plunges deep below ground. Labour from Bangladesh and India is leveraged to realise these projects cheaply, men leaving struggling families and poor job prospects behind. For all of its attractions, Singapore can be full of perils for migrant workers. Far too often these men find themselves in dangerously exploitative conditions and return to their home countries with debt and injury. Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) is an NGO which supports and advocates for migrant workers in Singapore. Among its programmes is the Cuff Road Project which provides free meals to workers who have lost their jobs.
I joined the volunteers at the Cuff Road Project to interview workers regarding their views on the quality of the meals they receive through catering during the time when they were still in employment. I conducted interviews over a three month period, speaking with Bangladeshi and Indian workers from the ages of 23 to 45. In addition, my interviews included a few longer-form conversations with ambassadors of TWC2 (migrants who had been in Singapore for extended periods of time, and who have supported the TWC2 mission). I used Bangladeshi and Tamil translators when language barriers inevitably arose; articulating the nuances of food and flavour is challenging even in one’s native tongue. The men I interviewed had been working in Singapore anywhere from one month to 24 years.
In 2015, a report titled ‘Food Insecurity and Health of Bangladeshi Workers in Singapore’ was published by the National University of Singapore. The paper documented a comprehensive study of the food conditions of Bangladeshi migrant workers in Singapore, citing huge concerns within the current system; the catered food served to the workers was woefully unhygienic resulting in sickness, hunger, and utter despair toward eating at all. Revisiting this topic in 2023, it appears that very little, if anything, has been done to rectify the pitiful conditions. At the direct expense of the workers, costs are shaved down to the bone wherever possible. The following article is meant to outline the state of catered food in Singapore in 2023, as heard from the workers themselves, and to highlight potential areas of focus.
Catering is the system by which the majority of migrant workers in Singapore are fed. As it stands, catered meals are delivered to worker dormitories, twice per day: breakfast and lunch are delivered in the first trip, dinner in the second. Breakfast consists of a couple roti prata with gravy; lunch is usually rice with dhal and chicken; dinner quite similar to lunch, rice with vegetables, curried fish or mutton. These meals are cooked in central kitchens with minimal awareness of hygiene, at best. The vegetables are old, the proteins poorly prepared, and the food usually sits for hours before it is consumed. One man stated, ‘Whatever they supply tomorrow they cook today.’ Breakfast and lunch are cooked in the dead of night and delivered in the early morning. After delivery to the dormitories, the food waits, often in the sun, for hours, becoming congealed and often spoiling by the time the workers can eat. Dinner is typically more fresh, but men often return from work quite late at night. Boxes of meals are placed outside the dormitories in the early morning, and sometimes it rains or critters get to the food before people. There is no recourse for a worker who cannot eat the meal provided; the workers must go without food or pay out of pocket for something edible.
The cost (to the worker) for signing up for catered meals range from about $130 to $200 per month. A few workers agreed that the quality of the food did increase when they switched to more costly plans, though there were many who asserted there was no positive correlation between the price paid and the quality of the food; ‘It’s all the same, bad food’. There were workers who cited that when they switched to a more costly plan, the food quality would improve for a week, maybe two, and then it would drop again and they would be receiving the same poorly prepared meals as before. Either way, workers generally cannot afford to pay above the bare minimum for their meals because their own salaries are abysmally low.
The quality of the food is low because costs are kept low. There are doubts if the people preparing the food are trained in the proper preparation of ingredients or hygiene; the ingredients are of the lowest quality; the logistics of delivery are designed with costs in mind, not food safety. The end product can barely be called a meal, though for dignity’s sake we will continue to use the term. Employers are not incentivised to satisfy the nutritional requirements of the workers, and the caterers certainly would not incur superfluous costs if they weren’t forced. There is zero accountability in this landscape. Even the consumers – the migrant workers – are powerless to affect the outcomes.
It is terrible that these men are not honored with the same hygiene standards as the rest of Singapore, which prides itself upon being so put together in that respect. It’s even worse when you witness the sheer legal scrutiny these men are under, the harshness of punishments that fall upon them for trifles like missing a day of work because they’re sick. The life of a migrant worker in Singapore can be full of perils.
The following is not a comprehensive study but a distillation of themes which arose repeatedly over my interview period. They serve to highlight the issues which are top-of-mind for the workers on whom Singapore relies so much for our economy, and who the State claims they “take care of”.
The opportunity to cook – and the facilities for doing so – is highly valued amongst the workers; the men can incorporate their own chosen ingredients into a meal that is both hot and freshly prepared. The majority of worker dormitories in Singapore do not allow cooking; it would seem that only about 30% of men are able to cook. Cooking is also labour- and time-intensive, real luxuries for migrant construction workers. Even in dorms which accommodate cooking, kitchen appliances are frequently shared amongst so many workers that cooking is no longer viable. In better scenarios, kitchen appliances were only shared amongst a small group. The workers who cooked often for themselves found cooking to a precious asset, though they lamented the labour involved after a hard day’s work.
Rice is the key staple for the majority of workers I interviewed. Almost every worker who received catered rice held some resentment toward the grains they received. The rice used by caterers is unsurprisingly of the very lowest quality. The workers described the rice as having a hard or ‘sharp’ texture, and often giving off an unpleasant odor. Improperly cooked rice causes gastric distress, a malady which is constantly burdening workers in Singapore. ‘If I eat hardened rice, I get a stomachache and can’t go to the toilet properly…I get constipated.’
Rice is not the single staple amongst the migrant workers. North Indian workers either seldom or never eat rice, favouring chapati, a wholewheat flatbread, as their carbohydrate – wheat is a common crop in North India and therefore breads are consumed far more than rice. ‘If I eat rice, one hour, hungry again,’ said a Punjabi man. It was a simple yet intriguing contrast when so many men I’d interviewed held rice to be their form of sustenance. The men who preferred chapati had no complaints over the quality of the catered chapati.
The components of a meal may be separately packed on delivery
There is a lot of rice but other components are miserly
Depending on where you are in the world, people have different ideas about what constitutes ‘a meal’. For some, a meal is incomplete without white rice; others, bread. In my own western experience, meals are often considered incomplete without animal protein. Food is something psychologically binding from a young age, and it would seem that our associations with proper sustenance really stick around. Religion and cultural context are areas which can strongly influence or even dictate appropriateness around food. In Singapore this can be a sensitive subject in light of its highly mixed demographics, though it is arguably one of the country’s most beautiful features. Immigrants add to this tapestry, hailing from all over East, Southeast and South Asia, and further beyond. Dishes from the immigrants’ home countries often find their way across the borders, though when it comes to migrant workers, they are not often honored with foods with which they are comfortable consuming.
The concern of ‘appropriateness’ arises in several areas within the landscape of catered food. Meals meant strictly for Bangladeshi or Indian workers are commonly prepared in the same kitchens, and spices are mixed that the men would prefer not to consume. Specifically, Bangladeshis abstain from eating or cooking with curry powder. Bangladeshi men cited that such a spice isn’t used in Bangladesh and therefore they don’t like it in their food. Curry powder is a spice used regularly in Indian dishes, and often ends up in food meant for the Bangladeshis.
Companies commonly employ a majority demographic, say Indian, and then a minority of others, say Bangladeshi. In order to cut costs, the company will choose an Indian caterer, despite the Bangladeshi’s discomfort toward eating Indian food. Employers dictate that there must be at least 20 people who want specific food in order for it to be catered. My interviewees reported that if a company is comprised of 70 Indian men and only eight Bangladeshi men, the company will not cater Bangladeshi meals to those eight men – they too will receive Indian meals.
The workers stressed that, apart from low quality, the lack of variety in catered meals is demoralising. Caterers evidently buy certain vegetables in bulk, and use them for lunches and dinners – the same vegetables, the same spices – every day of the week. Variety is a key factor in the enjoyment of food. Even the most delicious foods would become boring and distasteful if eaten day in and day out. Simply varying the use of vegetables could significantly increase the enjoyment of these meals.
Variety could also take the form of diversifying the components of the meals. Bangladeshi workers currently receive a meal with about three components; rice, an animal protein, and a vegetable. If one of these items has spoiled, which happens commonly, it is difficult to salvage the meal. A suggestion was made that if there were perhaps one more component, not only could the meal be more enjoyable, but it would be easier to salvage in the event that something spoiled. It’s disheartening that the workers expect to be working around spoiled food, but it is their reality. Some of the workers’ suggestions were imaginative. One suggested French-fries as the additional item.
In this instance, workers bought eggs separately to add protein to their meals
Surveys may be valuable in gaining direct feedback about catered food conditions in Singapore. A worker spoke of being quarantined during the pandemic, and remembered a survey regarding the food and living conditions, which were already quite good. The survey was a simple QR code in his room, and made the man feel as if the people really cared about his well-being. However, complications could arise creating a survey that includes varying dietary preferences and is directed in such a way to touch upon information which the workers themselves might not reference unprompted.
Quality catered food vs. cooking
As the situation stands, workers predominately prefer to cook over receiving catered meals. Their own food is fresh, and they can choose exactly which ingredients are being used. I posed the question that, hypothetically, if the catered food were to improve, would they still prefer to cook themselves? It often took a moment for me to articulate this hypothetical scenario, because immediately the workers would express that they would always prefer cooking over catered food, in its current state. When they finally understood my question (if the catered food were to improve), with few exceptions the workers agreed that they would happily embrace this dream of quality catered food, as it would save them precious time and energy needed to cook for themselves.
The migrants with whom I spoke ask that the ingredients in their meals be of decent quality and cooked properly, that there is some variation throughout the week, and that the meals be delivered in a manner which allows for consumption with some satisfaction. Understandably, such goals will require a concerted effort, considering the nearly hundreds of thousands of migrant workers housed in dormitories in Singapore; but for humanity’s sake this is essential to address, and really, it should’ve been addressed and resolved long ago. The bottom line is that the cheapest options for migrant workers must be of edible, nutritious quality. The employers and caterers will not improve the meal conditions for the workers without incentive, without a nudge (or a good kick) from the government. If Singapore is truly a sustainable city then it will seriously consider improving the food hygiene of the workers who put their bodies on the line for the sake of the country’s infrastructure. Singapore likes to hold records; world’s greenest city, word’s tallest Ferris wheel, etc. Perhaps Singapore could set a global standard for the treatment of migrant workers, that despite stark resources these men will be provided for like guests in a home.