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Help foreign workers eat right

Food safety and nutrition need to improve for the thousands who toil at construction sites

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.

PERSISTENT PROBLEM


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

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.

COOKING WOES

A frequent appeal from workers is for cooking facilities where they live, so they can prepare low-cost and nutritious food for themselves.

But not all dormitories have stoves, and not all workers whose dormitories provide cooking facilities are able to use them.

Some said they have no access to refrigerators unless they pay additional fees, presumably for the electricity used.

So if they return too late from work and cannot buy ingredients from the provision shop, they are unable to cook for the next day and will also have to go to bed on an empty stomach.

As for employers, many shy away from providing food for their workers because it is a huge headache to cater to the varied tastes of workers of different nationalities, ranging from Northern Thai and Southern Thai to South Asian and Bangladeshi.

Hence the rise of the middlemen, who coordinate orders from workers and liaise with catering companies on the arrangements. Usually a foreign worker himself, the middleman creams off part of the $120 to $130 that each of his colleagues pays for catered food, which lowers the quality of food they end up with.

Middlemen are known to even disappear with the entire payment, leaving caterers in the lurch.

Technology to automate the food-preparation process could help reduce cooking time but caterers have said it is difficult to buy machines because they face losses of anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000 when middlemen abscond with workers' payments.

"Companies may not be able to invest in improving their processes without guaranteed payments," said ISO Delight business development manager Kassler Peh, responding to last month's survey. In some instances, some are forced out of business.

WHAT CAN BE DONE

If conditions are to improve, the middlemen need to go.

When employers take charge of liaising directly with catering companies, the employees get what they actually pay for.

The caterers also have their cash flow assured.

Secure payments could provide good catering companies the opportunity to scale up their operations, invest in more technology or workers, and prepare food in a more timely manner. Another approach is for all construction firms to take food costs into account when submitting tenders for jobs, said Mr Loo of the contractors' association. They could then either ensure food is provided at the worksite, or that workers have enough money to pay for lunchtime deliveries.

Some employers have taken the lead. Mr Hooi Yu Koh, chief executive and managing director of Kori Holdings, said the company pays its workers about $100 above market rate so as to cover the cost of food.

Mr Hooi also knew of a smaller company which employed its own chef to prepare meals and provided transport to deliver freshly cooked lunch to the yard.

Developers and contractors could work together to make measures like these the norm.

"If everyone tenders according to the rules and regulations and no one cuts corners, then it's a level playing field," said Mr Loo.

Current Manpower Ministry regulations stipulate that employers of foreign workers must provide safe working conditions. They are to "take such measures as are necessary to ensure the safety and health of the foreign employee at work".

This should include ensuring employees have access to safe and sufficient food.

"It's just keeping up decent health," said Mr John Gee, head of research at migrant worker group Transient Workers Count Too.

"When your diet is poor, you don't hold up well to challenges to your health. And if food is unsafe or inadequate, workers don't have the energy that they need or the resilience." Better enforcement of the law could benefit the workers.

Perhaps the Government can also take the lead in refining its contracting system, as it has done for local low-wage workers through the progressive wage model. Adopting it has been made a licensing requirement in the cleaning and security sectors, and will soon be compulsory for companies bidding for government contracts in the landscape sectors.

Could proper food arrangements such as onsite canteens or lunchtime food deliveries become part of construction contracts?

That may raise costs slightly for Singaporeans but could go a long way in enhancing food safety for fellow workers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 23, 2015, with the headline 'Help foreign workers eat right'. Print Edition | Subscribe