Help foreign workers eat right

July 23, 2015

By Joanna Seow, Opinion |

By the time thousands of foreign construction workers eat their lunch each day, it may be eight hours or more since the food was prepared. And the pre-packed meals in plastic bags or paper packets could have sat in the sun for five of those hours.

Packets of rice and curry sitting along the walkways of Housing Board blocks or in the nook of a pillar in the noon heat are not an uncommon sight. Other times, the food is in their backpacks placed near construction site offices.

If a survey released last month of 500 Bangladeshis is anything to go by, most workers are not eating safely. More than nine in 10 respondents told the National University of Singapore’s Centre for Culture-Centred Approach to Research and Evaluation and migrant worker group HealthServe that they are given unhygienic food to eat.

After all, National Environment Agency regulations, which require catered food to be time-stamped to show when it was cooked, also state that the food should be consumed within four hours of cooking if kept between 5 deg C and 60 deg C.

Food safety and nutrition for these workers has been a longstanding problem. While members of the public may find such treatment of foreign workers unacceptable, there is no straightforward answer as contributing factors include food and transport costs, logistical challenges and a lack of regulation and oversight.

The decentralised nature of construction worksites makes delivery a logistical challenge. At any one time, there are thousands of locations around Singapore where construction work takes place – from small projects involving a single house to MRT lines and Housing Board blocks.

For many of the 322,700 construction workers on work permits here who do not cook, the caterers they pay for three meals a day typically prepare their breakfast and lunch in the wee hours of the morning and deliver them to the workers’ dormitories by 5am, before the workers disperse from their dormitories for their 12-hour work shift. Dinner is delivered at around 6pm.

Unsurprisingly, the food at lunch is stale by the time the workers eat it and some have complained of an upset stomach afterwards.

Ideally, the workers’ meals should be cooked and delivered three times a day, with lunch sent to their worksites.

That would cost more – an estimated increase of $45 a month for each worker, not a paltry sum for someone earning less than $1,000 a month.

Additionally, the men move around frequently, so it could be difficult to coordinate deliveries.

One worker at a site near Clementi said: “Some days, the boss calls and says to go to another site to work. How will I get the food?”

Some companies, typically larger ones, have got around this problem by setting up canteens at construction sites.

Rotary Engineering, which has about 300 to 1,200 workers at each of its worksites, subsidises bottled water and food at onsite canteens, providing both halal and non-halal food options.

“Workers are the foundation of the company, and if the foundation is weak, the whole structure will be weak,” said its health, safety and environment director Bhupendra Singh Baliyan.

Running a canteen is not always feasible, however, especially for small projects such as bungalows.

Because of the variety of locations and sizes of projects, there is no “one size fits all” solution, said Singapore Contractors Association president Kenneth Loo.

And no minimum standards have been set for employers, unlike in the United Arab Emirates, for example. Like Singapore, it employs a large number of foreign construction workers – some 500,000 of them. Its labour laws require employers, whose workers are in remote areas without access to normal means of transportation, to provide food.

While employees still have to foot the bill for their meals, the onus is on employers to make sure that the food reaches the workers.

In Singapore, however, the rules that govern the employment of work permit holders, other than domestic helpers, do not cover food. Employers are required to provide food only if a foreign worker’s work permit has been cancelled or if he is waiting for compensation for salary arrears or injuries. Left to their own devices, the workers stint on their own meals and often opt for the least expensive option, which may also end up being unsafe.

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