SINGAPORE - Employers must make sure their foreign construction workers under the newly mandated stay-home notice get proper meals, the authorities said on Tuesday (April 21).
The Ministry of Manpower and the Building and Construction Authority said in a statement that employers are responsible for providing sufficient food to workers, who are not allowed to leave their residences for 14 days.
The notice applied to all work permit and S Pass holders in the construction sector from Monday, to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.
"Employers may choose to reimburse their employees for the cost of food or groceries provided, or come to a mutual agreement on how the costs will be borne between the employer and employee," the agencies said.
They added that employers should also remember part of the two-week period falls within the holy month of Ramadan, which starts on Friday and ends May 23, when making delivery arrangements to Muslim employees who need to fast.
Tuesday's statement comes after industry leaders told The Straits Times the stay-home period, announced Saturday night, caught them by surprise.
The Singapore Contractors Association said there was a scramble to arrange meals for workers. While most firms eventually managed to find food supplies, they had to pay higher prices than normal due to the sudden surge in demand.
Migrant worker groups have also responded to distress calls from workers where arrangements could not be made on time, and warned that the sudden decision to impose the stay-home notice would lead to problems with workers' access to medical care and food.
The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) on Sunday said despite the authorities' advisories about the matter, it had encountered several cases where employers failed to meet their responsibilities.
Similarly, the Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) said on Tuesday that while the law requires employers to bear the responsibility for food "they are unable to discharge this duty appropriately and in a timely manner" during this period.
Home also noted that enforcement has slowed as MOM focuses on addressing contagion in the large dormitories.
Giving employers just one day's notice to arrange catering will likely mean workers have to choose between flouting stay-home rules or going hungry, it added.
MOM and BCA said catered meals should be arranged for foreign employees staying in factory-converted dormitories (FCDs) or temporary living areas at construction sites, among others, as they are not allowed to use communal cooking facilities due to the risk of transmitting Covid-19.
Workers living in private residential properties or Housing Board flats can place orders for groceries or meal delivery services, or their employers can also arrange for food to be delivered.
Despite the advisories, R, 30, a construction worker who has been in Singapore for five years, told ST he spent most of Tuesday hungry as his employer could not get food delivered to him.
Since he could not leave the Little India shophouse where he lives, he managed to get some food only after his friend was willing to share some of his dinner.
"I called my boss, but he said he was still stuck in Malaysia and cannot come back, so he cannot help me," said R, who added that he also contacted Home, which is helping to arrange food for him.
Home executive director Catherine James said the current unprecedented times are a test of how to respond with compassion and empathy.
"Every distress call from any worker must be answered during this time that they are 'confined' for the health of all of us. Workers should also be able to speak up without fear of retaliation by employers if their basic needs are not being met," she said.
Several migrant groups, like Home, have been helping to make up for the shortfalls.
For example, the Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach has partnered MWC to start an emergency meal support programme specifically targeted at workers in smaller FCDs .
It distributed more than 88,000 meals to almost 9,000 workers between April 10 and 20.
Correction note: A previous version of this article cited R, a worker, who said he was with Sun Moon Construction and that his employer could not get food delivered to him. The worker has since said he is not employed by the company. We are sorry for the error.