Screengrab from Straits Times’ video (link)

The 10 April 2023 story in the Straits Times by Zaihan Mohamed Yusof, Food meant for migrant workers left unattended outside dormitories; MOM investigating,  highlighted the issue of catered food for migrant workers in dormitories and how badly they are handled during delivery.

The story is behind a paywall, but the video on the same page is freely accessible. It covers the main points.

The Straits Times’ story

Journalist Zaihan was shocked to see food left in bags and plastic containers alongside roads and in grassy fields near dormitories. As shown in the video, the food is sometimes spoiled by the time the men get to consume them.

The print version of the story says a bit more about why food is left outside the dorms. Apparently, dorm operators are required to permit delivery of catered meals, but only if the food is from a properly licensed supplier. Some employers may be organising catered meals from unlicensed suppliers, and the dorms, rightly, will not admit them.

When the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said to Straits Times that it would act against dorm operators who breached its regulations and who failed to ensure their residents’ access to safe catered food, they were unlikely to mean much more than that: Dorm operators should allow deliveries of catered meals from licensed suppliers. MOM is hardly going to say, OK, you should now let unlicensed food vendors in.

The Straits Times reached out to Singapore Food Agency (SFA) too and reported them saying that dorm operators, employers and food establishments should ensure timely delivery of food, adding that the meals should also be collected promptly. But it also stressed that these are private arrangements so it’s a way of saying that SFA really can’t do much about the situation.

Same issue reported way back in 2015

What journalist Zaihan saw and wrote about is hardly new.  The same issue was reported on 19 March 2015 by Today newspaper (Foreign workers ‘served unappetising, stale food’)

Here’s a damning quote from Today’s story, describing what Zaihan would see alongside roads eight years later:

Construction supervisor Zakir Hossain Khokan told TODAY: “If you come by construction sites or shipyards early in the morning, you will see how packs of food are left along the roadside. By the time workers have their meals, often the plastic bags would have been broken (by cockroaches or rats). The food is so smelly it has obviously gone bad.”

Nothing has been done since?

However, neither MOM’s and SFA’s responses even begin to address the bigger issue of unlicensed suppliers and the mismatch between delivery times on the one hand, and locations and the movements of workers on the other. As the video mentioned, blue-collar workers often do overtime, and they get back to their dormitories hours after the meals have been delivered (delivery could be as early as 2pm or 3pm).


The Straits Times’ story only focussed on dinner. There are equally huge problems with lunch.

Lunch is typically delivered together with breakfast around 6am or 7am. This means the food is prepared sometime between midnight and 5am. The workers pick up the delivered packages in the morning, consume the breakfast and take their lunches with them to work. The packets are left around the worksite till about 12 noon when they get their lunch break – that is, consumed seven to twelve hours after preparation.

Your writer took this picture of three electricians having lunch at 11:54am near where they were working. He asked them what time they received their lunch packs. They said around seven o’clock that morning, together with their breakfast packs.

Catering model can never work

While the news story was good at describing the problem, it barely touched on possible solutions. If at all it did, it seemed to suggest that the problem can be fixed by looking at how catered meals can be delivered better.

A particularly absurd example was mentioned at 4 minutes 10 seconds in the video: that of a catering company installing 60 lockers which kept the food warm. This is positively dangerous; food spoils faster when kept warm. There should be chillers, not warmers. But of course, chilled food would then require microwave ovens or such appliances to warm them up again when the men pick up their meals. That will add to cost, but in any case, there were just sixty such lockers and it does not look like a scalable solution.

Get out of the catering mindset

In our view, catering is a system that simply cannot fit the needs. We think a more radical solution is called for. The inescapable fact is that the men’s working hours are long, and often variable. Their work locations are far from the dorms, sometimes far from built-up neighbourhoods too; even our normally ubiquitous hawker centres may be nowhere to be found.

Catering is a system that works best when the location and time of consumption is known in advance and unlikely to change, such as for conferences, house parties or hospital settings. When timing and location are as variable as migrant workers’, it cannot be suitable system.

For lunch, the timing is almost always around 12 noon, but the location is highly variable. The workers from the same dorm are scattered over many worksites. For dinner, the location is almost always back at the dorm, but the timing is unpredictable. Some workers come back early, others return very late.

Only breakfast has relatively unvarying timing and location. But precisely because breakfast tends to have a narrow time window and a single location, there is a surge effect. Thousands of workers will want breakfast at about the same time.

This suggests that there may not be a single solution for all three meals; different solutions may be needed.

From a food safety and taste pleasure point of view, food cooked in situ (freshly-cooked hot meal) would be hard to beat. We would do well to require all dormitories to include large dining halls that can seat about one-sixth of their total populations at any one time. With workers trickling back from work between 6pm and 11pm, it should be possible to feed all of them with six turns of seating. Supporting these mess halls should be a number of kitchens preparing meals of different cuisines. The dorms can lease out these kitchens the same way a food court leases out stalls.

Breakfast is more compressed time-wise. But even then, the in-situ mess hall would still be workable provided that about half the dorm residents did a take-out for breakfast, consuming it in their rooms.

Lunch is more difficult. The same kitchens (associated with the mess halls) can be where they are prepared, but there will be a need for a fleet of vehicles that can manage delivery to various parts of Singapore around 11am or noon. Fleet management and route planning should be centred around each dorm. Dorm operators can ask employers where their workers are in the daytime, and can then plan routes making drop-offs in the most efficient way possible.

Alternatively, employers can send their lorries back to the dorms around 11:30am to pick up meals for their workers.

Food trucks

We should be open to the idea of food trucks and not simply ban them altogether. Here, ‘food truck’ refers to a van with cooking facilities on board.

No doubt, there are limits to food trucks as a solution for lunch. Whilst they have the advantage of being mobile and able to go to wherever the worksites are, their capacity, in terms of the the number of meals they can serve, has an upper limit. Nonetheless, they may be the least-bad solution for small or medium-sized work forces in the remoter areas where even delivery from the dorm-affiliated kitchens may prove inefficient.

One other consideration that may require a closer look is whether the kinds of Asian food that Indian, Burmese and Bangladeshi workers prefer are easy to cook on food trucks.

Present system environmentally damaging

The present system of lunches and dinners being prepared in some shophouse in Little India, then trucked all the way to dorm locations, usually in distant industrial areas, to be dropped into plastic containers by the roadside, and then (in the case of lunch) be taken by the worker to his worksite and consumed hours later is not only bad for food hygiene and taste satisfaction, but also has an environmental impact. There is

  • excessive consumption of fuel transporting the packed meals here and there,
  • the feeding of vermin when food is left by the road,
  • the large quantity of packaging material involved, particularly plastic, and
  • the inordinate amount of waste when the food has spoiled and is thrown away.

The responses from the authorities to the Straits Times’s story were underwhelming, with an evident failure to grasp the true nature of the problem. What is needed is a complete rethink of meals for migrant workers, from first principles.

Part 2 will touch on two other related aspects of this issue of meals for migrant workers in dormitories:  cooking for themselves and cost. It will also ask what it is about our policy-making that has resulted in such serious neglect over the matter of meals.