“The study revealed that the meals [of the 60 Bangladeshi workers] consisted of a pile of rice and some tinned meat or curry that were often delivered hours in advance” (Netizens Outraged Over Foreign Worker Meals, Matthias Tay).
The poor meals offered to foreign workers – revealed by a study by the National University of Singapore and HealthServe of 60 Bangladeshi workers living in the Tai Seng area (TODAY, Mar. 21) – is a symptom of broader exploitation in Singapore, made more evident by the responses of their employers and the food-catering companies. More concerned with their financial performance or low-margin operations and pushing the blame around, the welfare of foreign workers appears to be the least of their concerns.
Employers justify the need for catered meals to reduce the “risk of work accidents”, since their migrant workers used to skip lunches to save the dollars. This would only be justified if the amount paid by these workers – more than $100 a month for three catered meals a day, according to the interviewed construction workers (TODAY, Mar. 20) – is used solely for the meals. On the other hand the caterers lament the need to stay in the black, and rail against illegal operators (perhaps condoned by some employers) who ultimately “compromise on quality to cut corners”, and therefore also compromising on the well-being of the workers. Somewhere in this odd formula profits are made at the expense of the foreign workers.
In the first place of course, little is also said about the poor remuneration offered to the foreign workers, and little fuss is made about dilapidated living conditions in some dormitories too, where “the cooking facilities are insufficient”. If they could afford to, these workers who graft under exhausting conditions would hardly scrimp on meal expenses.
Until these structural problems of insufficient compensation is addressed, the provision of meal allowances to foreign workers seems to be a fairer arrangement. At the very least the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) can ascertain if the amounts given are reasonable, and the workers can make decisions on the purchase of food or self-prepared ingredients. If employers still decide that catering is the preferred meal arrangement, the MOM has to work more closely with the National Environment Agency to ensure safe delivery times and storage methods, as well as proper nutrition. For fear of reprisals foreign workers will be apprehensive about blowing the whistle, so heavier penalties – slapped through existing spot-checks at work and construction sites – could remove the financial incentives for exploitation.
The consternation drawn by these poor meals reflects growing awareness of the unfortunate plight of many migrant workers in our midst, especially with the work of non-government organisations, but these sentiments will count for little if government action against the perpetrators is not forthcoming. Driven by profits companies will always find ways to maximise their own interests, even if the welfare of their employees are compromised. Inaction cannot persist.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.