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Labourers from Bangladesh at a coffeeshop in Singapore’s Little India district. Photo: Reuters


Whenever Mominul Hassan calls his wifeand two children back home in Bangladesh, he makes it a point to disable thevideo call function on his phone so that they will not be able to see him.This,he says, is the only way to ensure that they never find out how much weight hehas lost since coming to work in Singapore as a construction worker eight yearsago. “If my wife sees me, she will worry and ask me to come home. I misshome but I also need to earn enough money before I can return,” he said.Hassan,32, weighed 65kg when he arrived here. Today, he is only 55kg – a dip caused bya lack of proper food and nutrition, he said.Hassan is not alone. In one ofAsia’s most developed countries, where food wastage is a national problem,migrant workers are going hungry because of low wages and a highly competitivefood catering industry that capitalises on the willingness of workers to scrimpand save for a better life.


World renowned for its meticulousplanning and distinct skyline that featured in the Hollywood hit film CrazyRich Asians, Singapore depends on a large pool of blue collar migrant workersfrom countries like India, Bangladesh and Myanmar to power its building andconstruction sector, which was valued at nearly US$22.5 billion in 2018.


But ina country with no minimum wage, migrant workers take home just US$13-15 dailyfor back breaking work that usually lasts from 10 to 12 hours a day, dependingon the scale of the project.As a result, most workers do not mind clocking inextra overtime hours to supplement their income. With barely enough time and cash tospare, they turn to caterers as a no-frills and cheap solution for their dailymeals.On paper, it seems a good deal. For US$90-US$110 a month, they get threemeals a day delivered straight to their dormitories and work sites.


Exposed to Singapore’s heat andhumidity, the food often succumbs quickly in the open.“The food always arrives fresh butby the time I eat it, it has already become bad. Usually I will throw awayabout half of the rice because I cannot eat it any more,” said Hassan.
Ironically, the workers are alsocontributing to Singapore’s food waste problem.
The food packages are usually left inboxes in the open, because there is a lack of proper food storage areas neardormitories and work sites.As a result, workers told This Week in Asia it isnot uncommon to find stray dogs and rats getting to the food packets beforethem. Duringmonths of monsoon rain, the food is soaked and inedible.To get by, workersoften forgo meals altogether. Others turn to caffeine-enhanced energy drinks toperk themselves up and to eliminate hunger pangs.Indian national A. Rajah, whohas lived in Singapore for seven years, says that even though he is well awareof the long-term side effects of energy drinks, such as increased bloodpressure and diabetes, he has little choice. “It’s cheap and the sweetaftertaste helps to keep me awake,” he said. “But I’m not the only one. If youwait outside worker dormitories in the morning, you will see piles of energydrink cans.” For workers who live in dormitories equipped withadequate cooking facilities, the situation is only slightly better. While theycan cook their own meals, the supermarkets in dormitories usually charge higherprices for their goods compared to those elsewhere.


“The nearest supermarket is veryfar away and by the time we all get back at the end of the day, we are all verytired,” said R. Velmurugan, from India.“Every minutethat we get to rest is important so we have no choice but to buy from thesupermarket in the dorm even though it is expensive.”
CATERERS struggle, too


With 1.5 million foreign workers inSingapore, the food catering business that serves them is lucrative. To edgeahead, firms slash prices knowing the customers are very price sensitive.Quality invariably suffers.“Similar to any other industry, the more you pay, the better thequality. It is not the fault of the caterers or the workers,” said SukkurMaideen, 47, who manages a canteen and a supermarket at a dormitory. Caterersdo not have it easy either. To meet demand, kitchen operations run 24 hours aday, every day of the year. The labour intensive business chalks up heavy costsfor logistics, fuel and manpower and Singapore is expensive. Margins are thin.


A seasoned industry player sayscaterers make just 30 cents per meal. To boost profits, corners are cut byusing inferior ingredients and consolidating deliveries.
One caterer said workers could notexpect more for the amount they paid.


Migrant worker T. Kamalakannan, 26,suggested using weatherproof thermal food boxes could improve the situation.“Proper storage boxes that can helpto keep our food warm and safe will give us peace of mind because we can workknowing that we don’t have to go hungry or throw away our food afterwards,” hesaid. Thefood issue, said migrant worker activist Debbie Fordyce, executive committeemember at Transient Workers Count Too, was part of a wider picture ofexploitation facing low wage transient migrant workers. After having to payexorbitant recruitment fees to secure their – often dangerous and demeaning –jobs, workers were indebted to a point where coercion and exploitation wasinevitable, said Fordyce. She said employers had a responsibility to ensuretheir workers had access to reliable caterers or adequate kitchen facilities toprepare their own meals. “Migrant workers play a key role in driving oureconomy. We should treat foreign workers humanely, not as disposable andreplaceable labour,” she said.