Screengrab from Straits Times’ video (link)
In Part 1, we pointed out how catering as a system is fundamentally unsuited to the meal needs of migrant workers who live in dormitories. Catering cannot cope with the variability in meal times and locations that characterise construction work. It was therefore disappointing that the authorities’ responses to the issue raised by the Straits Times story, Food meant for migrant workers left unattended outside dormitories; MOM investigating, did not grapple with the root causes.
However, before we analyse the inadequacies of the authorities’ responses, it is also necessary to consider two other aspects: workers cooking for themselves and cost.
Workers cooking for themselves
Many dormitories have communal kitchens where workers can book a space and time-slot to cook their own meals. Some even have a little kitchen inside each apartment. Indeed, many workers have told TWC2 that it would be ideal if they could prepare their own meals to eactly their preferred taste.
The reality, however, is that the great majority of workers find this option impractical. To begin with, not all dorms have cooking facilities, so this ideal is simply not possible. But even if the dormitory where they are housed has such facilities, several other issues have to be factored in:
- Many workers have to work such long hours, they are too fatigued to cook;
- They have no refrigerators where they can securely store their provisions; expecting them to purchase their own refrigerators is absurd considering the cost of one relative to their wages, and the fact that the employer can require his workers to move to another dorm at short notice;
- It is impractical to cook for one;
- Conceivably, they could cook several meals to be consumed sequentially, but then the extra meals need to be frozen for later and reheated (no refrigerator, no microwave oven);
- Too much trouble going to grocery shops to buy provisions (and nowhere to store them).
In any case, there are also many workers who don’t know how to cook. In their families back home, they might always have relied on the womenfolk to be responsible for meals.
Ultimately, we can see that whilst it would be good if all dorms had cooking facilities complete with refrigerators and microwave ovens, cooking for oneself is always going to be a minority solution. Mass provision of meals is unavoidable, and as we have explained in Part 1, it should take the form of large capacity mess halls located within the dorms.
The great attractiveness of the present catering system is cost, especially if it is from an unlicensed supplier. Cost is a major determinant of food decisions because wages are absurdly low – a product of Singapore’s migrant worker system that suppresses their bargaining power generally.
Even if the dorm-centred mess halls that we described in Part 1 have not been fully costed out, we can assume that any better solution for workers’ meals will probably involve higher costs. That said, it should not be all that much higher than the present catering system since dorm-centred mess halls similarly involve mass central kitchens and (for lunch) delivery by trucks to site. But there is the need for better hygiene and comfort – mess halls would give them the dignity of sitting down for their meals – and these don’t come free.
More seriously, the nutritional quality of catered food is shocking. As pointed out by Debbie Fordyce of TWC2 to Today newspaper eight years ago in March 2015 (Foreign workers ‘served unappetising, stale food’ ), “The men complain about lack of protein, expired ingredients, and spoiled food. Men arrive in fairly good health, lose weight when they start working — a result of the hard work and long days as much as the food.”
Quite possibly, poor nutrition and fatigue are related to work safety too.
In this photo sent to us by a worker, the catered meal for him and his friend consisted of a small scrap of fish and some vegetables. They each had to buy 3 eggs separately to ensure they were getting enough protein.
Even so, the present substandard catering arrangement costs a quarter of the typical worker’s smonthly salary, as pointed out way back in 2015 by Today newspaper. Add in the fact that sometimes the food is spoilt and the worker has to buy another meal from elsewhere (at Singaporean prices), or he has to buy extra items to supplement his meals, food alone can eat up a third or more of a worker’s salary.
The entire discussion about decent meals for workers must therefore also encompass a larger discussion of wages, and how unsustainable our present system is of keeping wages low.
Complete rethink needed
Yet, when we look at the responses frrom the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) cited by Straits Times’ story, they are a long way away from even understanding the issue as a whole (logistics, timing, safety, cost), let alone dealing with it.
We quote from the Straits Times, MOM’s response:
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM), which is investigating the matter, said dorm operators may be breaching regulations if they allow packed food meant for migrant workers to be left in the open.
MOM added that it will act against dorm operators who breach its regulations, and who fail to ensure their residents’ access to safe catered food.
“Under the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act, it is the responsibility of dormitory operators to put in place measures to protect any catered food – whether arranged by the operator or dormitory residents – from contamination until it is collected by dormitory residents for consumption,” said an MOM spokesman.
“To do this, dormitory operators must allow for catered food to be delivered into the dormitory premises. All dormitory operators providing catered food to migrant workers must also procure food only from licensed catering establishments.”
When we unpack what they are saying, we see this:
- MOM will take action against dorm operators who allow food to be left in the open – but since dorm operators are not in charge of roadways and open fields outside their perimeter, MOM cannot possibly mean that dorm operators are expected to do something about that.
- Dorm operators must not allow catered meals from unlicensed vendors to be delivered to their premises – which can only mean that such food must be left outside the dorm perimeter over which the dorm operator does not have responsibility.
SFA said something similar, but took care to open with the disclaimer that since catering arrangements are private, please don’t expect too much from them.
The SFA said the delivery of food to migrant worker dorms is a private arrangement between the dorm operators, employers of foreign workers and food establishments.
But it added that these parties should ensure timely delivery of food, adding that the meals should also be collected promptly.
A spokesman said: “All food establishments licensed by the SFA, including catering establishments, are required to comply with SFA’s regulatory requirements regardless of who they supply food to.”
The agency said it will investigate all food safety-related feedback, adding that it will not hesitate to take enforcement action against food establishments found to be non-compliant.
The only teeth there is that SFA may investigate unlicensed vendors and drive them out of business. That of course will leave workers high and dry, and when the licensed vendors are asked to make up for the shortfall in supplied meals – if at all they have the kitchen and delivery capacity to do so – prices may go up.
How the political paradigm breeds bad food
Basically, we see from the above responses from MOM and SFA a very common type of official response in Singapore: We shall deal with bad actors.
All well and good, except that this is not just a case of bad actors. It is a bad system that evolved in the absence of responsible people putting in place a better system. The solution does not lie with cracking the whip; it must involve redesigning the entire meals supply chain for dormitory residents. This must include updated design requirements for dorms to include more kitchens and mess halls, a relook at wages and costs (including costs of retrofitting existing dorms), and a bottom-up review of the logistics of delivering meals to workers at faraway worksites.
We know it is difficult within the political paradigm of Singapore to do anything like this short of a major catastrophe – which may explain why despite the issue being featured in Today newspaper eight years ago, it remains the same in 2023. Questioning the status quo is fraught with risk. For public servants especially, there is too much loss of face to admit that the system is broken or that they have never thought about the problem at all. Consciously or subconsciously, it is easier to blame bad actors, with the advantage that doing so deflects from their own accountability.
Swat the flies, and all will be right in this insular little country.