Singapore — There has been much attention this year on the living conditions of the country’s migrant workers, especially those in low-wage jobs, given that the vast majority of the people who were infected with Covid-19 lived in often overcrowded worker dormitories.

And now, in an article for the South China Morning Post (SCMP), Mr Matthew Low from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at the Nanyang Technological University has looked into another matter concerning migrant workers, namely the poor quality of their food.

The food situation for most migrant workers is, in a word, problematic. Many avail of their meals from cheap catering services that prepare thousands of meals hours in advance, resulting in rancid food by the time it is eaten. Also, most workers do not get back until 7 or 8 pm, and when they do return to their dorms, there are often not enough cooking facilities for all the residents.

Attempts to get employers involved have not been successful as they do not generally see that this is part of their responsibility towards their workers.

As for the workers themselves, the majority accept the situation, and wish to spend as little as possible on meals in order for them to have more funds to support their families back home.

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Mr Low’s article seems to suggest that some degree of intervention could be done, and poses the question as to whether subsidies from the Government is the answer.

The problem is money. Most Indian and Bangladeshi workers earn between S$480 and  S$800 a month, so they choose the least expensive option for their meals, costing between S$90 and S$150 a month, a sizeable portion of their salary.

An example of such a meal is a piece of fish in curry that had sat “the morning heat for half a day”, a portion of “watery” dal and nearly a kilo of cold rice. For worker Ibrahim Khalil, experiencing stomach pains after meals is not unusual, according to Mr Low.

There have been those in Singapore who have tried to help, including Mr Jack Sim, co-founder of 45RICE, which in 2016 attempted to get 100 employers to supply vitamin-fortified rice for their workers. The attempt failed because only 15 firms came on board.

He is quoted as saying: “This food issue is nobody’s problem and it lives in a no-man’s land.” He added that employers have told him they did not want to be involved in the matter.

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The article adds that the caterers struggle as well, since food prices have gone up over the past decade and the fees charged to the workers have not. To further minimise cost, breakfast and lunch are delivered at the same time, since an additional delivery would make the meals unaffordable for the migrant workers.

Mr S Mahenthiran, director of Catering Solutions, is quoted as saying that in 2013, the employees in a shipyard put up much resistance when they were charged an additional S$10 a month for meals.

He said: “Later, I found out what the real issue was. It had nothing to do with the food, it was about the money. They were kicking and fighting just for that extra S$10 that we charged them.”

Mr Mahenthiran, as well as Mr Kassler Peh, the business development manager for catering firm ISO Delight, suggested that government subsidies maybe the answer, specifically that a portion of the foreign worker levy could go towards better meals for workers at no extra cost for employers.

Mr Mahenthiran said: “With Covid-19, the economy is not going to be so good. Everybody is going to be thinking about how their business can stay alive. You’re not going to have employers jumping to pay for workers’ meals.”

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“We really need the kind of change that is across-the-board. What can you do as just one person in the system? You’re just a pawn,” said Mr Peh.

MP Louis Ng (PAP-Nee Soon GRC) is cited by Mr Woo as someone who has shone light on the issue. “We’ve looked into improving the hardware – their physical living conditions and their dorms. Now it’s time to look into the software – their rest days and the food they eat.

“Ultimately, these workers are here to help Singapore. Without the workers, we won’t have our HDBs and our roads.

“Nobody is calling for them to be looked after better than Singaporeans, but simply that they are looked after,” Mr Ng said. /TISG

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