TWC2 volunteers discussing Hulash’s evidence before his hearing date at the Employment Claims Tribunal. Hulash has back to camera.

This is a continuation from Part 1, in which we profiled the journey through 2023 of migrant worker Hulash from India. We were finishing up our interview when a whole new issue was injected into the conversation, turning the spotlight onto the Ministry of Manpower (MOM)’s ineffectiveness in dealing with a new issue that Hulash raised.

We had not intended to focus on MOM in Hulash’s story, but once again, as in so many other stories we have reported on, the inadequacies of MOM just keep seizing attention.

After being fired

We’re now talking about the period after Hulash has lost his job. His Work Permit has been cancelled and he has been put on a Special Pass. His salary claim is in progress. He shares a room with friends paying (despite his loss of income) $350 a month.

Hulash is trying to get food support from his employer, otherwise he’ll be completely out of money soon.

Under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Regulations, employers (including former employers) are required to provide food to their ex-employees until the case is resolved and the workers properly repatriated. Despite this legal responsibility, Hulash has received no food support at all. He complained to MOM about it and below is a WhatsApp conversation between an MOM officer and him over this:

15 January 2024

MOM officer 1: Hi, Are you have food issue? Do you have company number? Because the number I called is not the person in charge.

Hulash: Yes, I am having trouble eating. Tell the company to give me money for food. I will cook it myself and eat it. (Hulash also provides a contact number for a certain Jennifer, whom he says is the boss.)

MOM officer 1: I can try to ask the company for it. But as long as the company provide you with catered meals, it will be covered as providing you food too. (We will explain this point below).

Hulash: The company has not yet paid me my $1 from August 25, 2023.

MOM officer 1: For your information…. it will be Employer’s responsibility is ultimately to provide food directly to worker. And not necessary to provide monetary allowance for food.

Hulash: Thanks.

Part of the WhatsApp conversation between the first MOM officer and Hulash

16 January 2024

Hulash: I understand that it is up to the employer to decide whether they give me catered meals or a food allowance. Unfortunately, the catered meal option doesn’t align with my dietary preferences (vegetarian and North Indian). Additionally, I would prefer a food allowance as it allows me to cook at my current residence, whch is healthier than catered meals. Can I kindly propose that my employer consider providing a food allowance equivalent to the cost of catering services, which is approximately $140 – $150 /month? I appreciate your understanding and consideration of this, and I’m not looking for an increase beyond this amount.

MOM officer 1: I have talked to your employer. They only will be providing you food through cater services. The employer mentioned that the food they provide is vegetarian too. Please accept the meals catered.

Hulash’s English is weak, and in some parts of the conversation, Hulash provided a TWC2 volunteer his desired reply in Hindi. The volunteer then translated his reply into English.

16 January 2024

Hulash: Madam, I am strictly vegetarian from Rajasthan and we do not eat rice. We only eat wheat flat bread and certain types of dry cooked vegetables. Catered meals are therefore not culturally appropriate. Hence my humble request for monetary remuneration towards purchasing wheat flour, vegetables and condiments so I may cook myself. I have not received any assistance in this regard.

MOM officer 1: Maybe u want to see your employer and talk to her about it. Because your employer is already providing you vegetarian food. Food gives you energy. I spoke to the Company and they will only give u catered meals. Please take the vegetarian food that the company is providing you for free. Don’t let your body go on hunger. You will need energy to fight for your court case too.

Hulash: Received catered meal rice and vegetable when working. I could not eat those meals and gave them away. Since 25 August not received catered meals.

There is vegetarian and there is vegetarian

Hulash knew what the company meant by “vegetarian” food. He had received it before. Vegetarian food varies depending on cuisine, and what is palatable for a Chinese may not be palatable to a Westerner or vice versa. Even South Indian vegetarian is not palatable to a North Indian.

This is Chinese Singaporean vegetarian food. Rajasthani vegetarian food is nothing like this.

Two days later, another MOM officer communicates with Hulash about the meals issue.

18 January 2024

MOM officer 2: I heard that you have food issues again. What did your boss say?

Hulash: We had asked him for $150. He is also not paying for the food.

MOM officer 2: you speak to Ms Jennifer, right?

Hulash: No.

MOM officer 2: then who?

Hulash: No one from company talks to me.

MOM officer 2: Okay.

Half an hour later, the conversation continues.

18 January 2024

MOM officer 2: where have you been getting your food?

Hulash: I sometimes eat in Gurudwara (a Sikh temple providing free meals), (Hulash is not Sikh). Sometimes to have dinner with my friends. I borrowed $1,100 from my friend in 5 months.

Hulash: Madam, since 25 August 2023 I visited the [company] office, approximately 1.5 months post 25 August and pleaded for some monies, at least for transport if not food, but the company said they would not pay my any money…. I cannot eat the catering they provided during my time working there. I go to the temple for free meals now. I am living with no money on the charity of others. Kindly assist me.

MOM officer 2: Boss wants to give vegetarian food at the office…. You want the vegetarian food boss give?

Hulash: Madam, as I explained to you, the food provided before 25 August when I was employed was not edible. I am strictly vegetarian and eat Rajasthani vegetables with flatbread not rice. If the company is at all able to provide me culturally acceptable food, am I to understand from your messages that I would have to travel three times a day from Jurong (where I am staying at on the charity of others) to Pasir Panjang company office to fetch the meal? I have no money at all to travel on public transport.

Hulash: I am requesting what money the company is spending on the food, may please be transferred to my account so I have some money in hand to buy food to eat. Thank you.

MOM officer 2: I understand you want meal allowance. But the company is not able to provide you with money. Only food catering. I suggest you whatsapp Ms Jennifer or your supervisor to explain what is your dietary requirements and if you both can come to a solution for what time and how to collect the food.

As readers can see, MOM tells Hulash to work it out with the company when Hulash said they’re not speaking to him, which is hardly surprising since Hulash is suing them at the Employment Claims Tribunal. What helpful advice!

Moreover, MOM says the company “cannot” provide a monetary meal allowance. Really? Cannot or will not? Nothing in the law forbids that. Here is the relevant portion of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Regulations 2012, Fourth Schedule, Part III, under the heading “Cancellation of work permit and visit pass and duties before or upon repatriation of foreign employee“, section 11A says:

11A. Except as the Controller specifies otherwise in writing, the employer is responsible for —
(a) the upkeep and maintenance of the foreign employee in Singapore, including the provision of adequate food and medical treatment; and
(b) bearing the costs of such upkeep and maintenance.

The MOM officers seem to be taking a very narrow and literal reading of the law in saying that if an employer wants to discharge their responsibility in kind (as food), even if unsuitable, then MOM cannot require that it must be in the form of a meal allowance. Yet even under such a narrow reading, there is a lot that MOM can do that it is not doing. It shouldn’t be so lenient about the vegetarian option that the employer is proposing but which Hulash has said is culturally incompatible.

Nor should MOM ignore the issue of transport. Providing meals at a location where the worker is not staying is to impose an additional cost on the worker, and MOM should see through this attempt to subvert the intent of law.

A simple Google search reveals a number of restaurants in Singapore serving Rajasthani and Punjab food. MOM can ask the employer to contract with one or more of them and with a meal delivery service such as Grabfood or FoodPanda to make thrice-daily deliveries to Hulash. Yes, cost will be far higher than the cheap meals catered to dorms, but nothing in legislation says that there should be a cost cap. If MOM wants to stick to the letter of the law, then they should insist that the employer provide culturally compatible meals regardless of cost.

The more obvious question is why the law is so badly phrased. Why not require employers to provide a monetary meal allowance of a value commensurate with the actual cost of meals, at least as an option where catered meals are unavailable or logistically impractical?

We don’t know what the thought process was behind the drafting of this part of the law, but it strikes us at TWC2 that the approach implicit in the phrasing is in keeping with the way MOM tends to treat migrant workers as wards of employers.

On the one hand, MOM may want – in selected areas – migrant workers to be treated well, but seem almost paranoid about giving them autonomy. MOM seems to conceptualise the relationship between employers and migrant workers as something not too far removed from that of an owner and his dog. Treat the dog well, Give food. But who gives his dog money to buy its own food?