Over 10m meals served to foreign workers confined to dorms

Meals adjusted to suit different tastes after feedback; other teething issues being resolved

Some of the meals and snacks provided for workers in purpose-built dormitories this week after initial issues surfaced with the quality and quantity of the food provided.
Some of the meals and snacks provided for workers in purpose-built dormitories this week after initial issues surfaced with the quality and quantity of the food provided.PHOTOS: ZAQY MOHAMAD/FACEBOOK, AHAMMAD MD ALI, KANDAN GOPINATH
Some of the meals and snacks provided for workers in purpose-built dormitories this week after initial issues surfaced with the quality and quantity of the food provided.
Some of the meals and snacks provided for workers in purpose-built dormitories this week after initial issues surfaced with the quality and quantity of the food provided.PHOTOS: ZAQY MOHAMAD/FACEBOOK, AHAMMAD MD ALI, KANDAN GOPINATH
Some of the meals and snacks provided for workers in purpose-built dormitories this week after initial issues surfaced with the quality and quantity of the food provided.
Some of the meals and snacks provided for workers in purpose-built dormitories this week after initial issues surfaced with the quality and quantity of the food provided.PHOTOS: ZAQY MOHAMAD/FACEBOOK, AHAMMAD MD ALI, KANDAN GOPINATH
Some of the meals and snacks provided for workers in purpose-built dormitories this week after initial issues surfaced with the quality and quantity of the food provided.
Some of the meals and snacks provided for workers in purpose-built dormitories this week after initial issues surfaced with the quality and quantity of the food provided.PHOTOS: ZAQY MOHAMAD/FACEBOOK, AHAMMAD MD ALI, KANDAN GOPINATH

More than 10 million meals have been served to foreign workers since some purpose-built dormitories went into lockdown, with food caterers seeking to address concerns raised about their quality and quantity.

This is no mean feat, as noted by Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad, who said in a Facebook post on Wednesday that the inter-agency task force set up to support the workers would have served over 10 million meals to those in the purpose-built dorms by this weekend.

He said there are 34 professional caterers providing meals to about 200,000 workers - akin to catering for the whole of Ang Mo Kio GRC. The Government is footing the bill for all meals in purpose-built dorms. It is not clear how much the caterers are charging but one of them, Neo Group, said it charges only for ingredients and labour costs.

Teething issues early on sparked criticism about the quality, quantity and the type of cuisine served up but this has improved, said Mr Zaqy.

He told The Straits Times that these issues stemmed from logistics challenges generated by the sheer number of residents in the dorms.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is now ensuring that meals are delivered to residents within 30 minutes of their arrival at the dorms. Tests are also being done with workers from different countries to ensure that the food suits their tastes.

"Some of them prefer a certain variety of rice, like ponni rice, and requested the rice to be cooked for a longer period of time," said Mr Zaqy.

The first catered meal given to Bangladeshi Ahammad Md Ali, 27, when his dorm was gazetted as an isolation area and locked down about two weeks ago was a bag of rice and Indian curry.

He was happy to chomp it down but some of his Bangladeshi friends at Westlite Mandai dormitory found it harder to stomach.

"The food is OK to 'makan' (eat in Malay), but Bangladeshi food is different from Indian food. Some of us are only used to Bangladeshi food," said Mr Ahammad, a safety coordinator who has worked here for seven years.

"Bangladeshi food is less salty. We gave feedback, the next day they sent Bangladeshi food," he added, noting that he usually cooks his own meals in the dorm.

The Covid-19 outbreak has resulted in about 300,000 workers having their movements restricted due to quarantine or stay-home notices, prompting the authorities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and employers to step in to ensure that daily needs are met.

ACTION AFTER FEEDBACK

The food is OK to 'makan' (eat in Malay), but Bangladeshi food is different from Indian food, some of us are only used to Bangladeshi food... Bangladeshi food is less salty. We gave feedback, the next day they sent Bangladeshi food.

BANGLADESHI AHAMMAD MD ALI, a safety coordinator who has worked here for seven years.

Meanwhile, the Covid-19 Migrant Support Coalition comprising NGOs and ground-up initiatives has provided around 17,000 meals to workers in factory-converted dorms and other types of accommodation over the past three weeks.

Migrant Workers' Centre chairman Yeo Guat Kwang said in this "unprecedented situation" everyone, including workers and caterers, has had to adapt and adjust: "It's understandable the workers are upset at the restrictions.

"Just like you and me, it's hard to give up choice and habits, such as being able to cook for yourself."

Indian construction worker Kandan Gopinath, 41, said the food in his PPT Lodge 1A dorm has improved over the past week.

When the dorm was gazetted as an isolation area on April 19, the meals were bland as they lacked the spices he was used to.

"The rice was half-cooked and there were only boiled vegetables and a little curry," he said, adding that things changed after he raised the issue with the dorm operator.

"These few days, the food has been good, like fish curry. But sometimes it can be very oily," he said.

Similarly, caterers who have taken on the task of feeding the hundreds of thousands of workers have had to adapt to the diets of at least six different nationalities.

Catering Solutions, which provides food for five purpose-built dorms, has ramped up its production from 20,000 meals a day to almost 70,000 in the past few weeks, said director Shanmugam Ganesan.

It had previously been catering for workers at Jurong Shipyard and Sembcorp Marine in Tuas, but providing for a bigger group has seen it tweaking its menus according to workers' feedback. It provides Chinese, Indian, Bangladeshi and Punjabi dishes.

"We adjusted the kinds of fish, vegetables and portioning of curries," said Mr Shanmugam, adding that extra portions of rice are also prepared just in case.

Catering Solutions has hired 60 workers to add to its workforce of 100 and tapped technology - it has a number of chapati-making machines - to increase production.

Its kitchens are working 24 hours a day, up from 18, to provide pre-dawn meals for Muslim workers in the dorms during Ramadan.

Mr Ong Yong Shun, an MOM officer deployed at Changi Lodge 2, acknowledged the initial dissatisfaction about the meals but said feedback has led to an improvement in quality. Forward assurance support, or "Fast", teams stationed in the dorms have been having the same meals as the workers, he said.

"This ensures first-hand knowledge of the quality of every meal served and enables us to be proactive in feedback given," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2020, with the headline 'Over 10m meals served to foreign workers confined to dorms'. Subscribe