( Burmese migrants peel shrimp in a processing plant in Thailand. (Photo: Thierry Falise/ILO)

On October 15th, 2019 the Singaporean Ministry of Manpower (MOM) published the “Foreign Worker Experience Survey” depicting the “well-being and employment conditions” of migrants working in Singapore. The Foreign Workers Survey asked a number of questions, including two questions on food security, which reinforced Singapore’s status as one of the most food secure nations in the world while other non-governmental sources, including interviews with foreign workers and other Singaporeans, illustrate food insecurity among migrants as a serious problem.

According to the report, the objective of the Foreign Worker Experience Survey was to aid MOM in developing “policies, programs and initiatives to support Foreign Workers.” The report consisted of over 3,000 self-reported, anonymous replies intended to be “generally representative of the foreign worker population profile.” For context of scale, there are currently 1.34 million foreign workers in Singapore.

Of the foreign workers surveyed, over 95% claimed that they could choose their own food arrangements, and in addition, 22.5% of foreign workers claim to use food caterers as their primary method of securing food. In total, these two statistics sum to roughly 300,000 migrants who utilize food caterers.

Contrastingly, migrant testimonies regarding these food caterers are staunchly negative. Migrants who are paid 20 SGD ($15 USD) a day for 12 hours shifts pay about 135 SGD from three meals a day delivered directly to them on job sites. Breakfast and lunch meals are often delivered together to cut back on logistical costs, forcing migrants to eat food that was prepared anywhere from 6 to 8 hours earlier and typically sitting in high humidity. Other testimonies decry the food as “unappetising and stale,” “foul smelling curry, rock solid fish with scales still intact” and other food “so hard it feels like one is ‘chewing on plastic.’” 

Catered meals for migrant workers usually consist of a portion of rice accompanied by a portion of meat and a side of vegetables. Photo: Prabhu Silvam
Catered meals for migrant workers usually consist of a portion of rice accompanied by a portion of meat and a side of vegetables. Photo: Prabhu Silvam

Many of these migrants continue to utilize food caterers delivering rotten food because they have little to no choice regarding food preparation. Using the Foreign Worker Survey as a benchmark, only 3.7% of migrants report having no choice in food preparation, or roughly 50,000 foreign workers.

There are several factors forcing migrants into purchasing meals from caterers, the most impactful being the length of work shifts. Migrant shifts are often 12 hours long, with food deserts surrounding many job sites. One migrant said that  “the nearest supermarket is very far away and by the time we all get back at the end of the day, we are all very tired.” Exhaustion prevents many migrants from other sources of food preparation other than catering.

While many migrants struggle with food security, Singapore as a whole has a substantial food waste problem. In 2018 alone, Singapore generated 763 million kg of food waste, or 1.5 kg of waste per household daily. Many non-profit organizations in Singapore such as Toward Zero Food Waste, Food Bank Singapore, and Fei Yue Community Services are encouraging people to donate their food waste. Yet little of this excess food makes it to foreign workers. Instead, much of the food goes to soup kitchens, nursing homes, or other initiatives, places where the migrants with the highest risk for food insecurity have little to no time to visit. Many foreign workers are cut off from non-profit aid designed to remedy their food insecurity.

Other grassroots organizations or individuals have attempted to create small initiatives in order to alleviate migrant food insecurity. In an initiative called “Come Makan with Me” some Singaporeans have been inviting foreign workers into their homes to share meals. The movement was started by oncologist Mohamad Farid with help from the Migrant Workers’ Centre (MCW). While “Come Makan with Me” has been successful at the local level, each instance only consists of two migrants invited into a volunteer’s home. With potentially 50,000 migrants at high risk for food insecurity, “Come Makan with Me” falls short without substantial support.

Mr Mohamad Farid (in orange) with his family and two foreign workers at his parents' flat in Bedok in December 2017.
Mr Mohamad Farid (in orange) with his family and two foreign workers at his parents’ flat in Bedok in December 2017.PHOTO: FACEBOOK/MIGRANT WORKERS’ CENTRE

Other grassroots movements encourage supermarkets and cafes to donate their extra food to nearby migrants in the community. In one instance, a local Starbucks customer asked if unsold pastries could be given to migrant construction workers at a nearby job. After much social media attention, the local Starbucks manager started an initiative to regularly redistribute unsold food to at-risk migrants.

Both of these initiatives suffer from a problem of location. Migrants at risk of food insecurity need to live near a household or corporation willing to donate food in order to benefit from these initiatives in the long term. In addition, there is a dearth of grassroots organizational activity pressuring the Singaporean government from creating policies to rectify foreign worker conditions regarding food security.

Despite the claims of the Foreign Worker Experience Survey, this report fails to adequately capture the state of many migrant workers in Singapore. The fact that NGOs and grassroots organizations recognize the extreme poverty levels of many migrants in Singapore but the MOM does not, demonstrates a severe disconnect between the Singapore government and migrant society. Unless the MOM revises the survey to account for such isolated communities, those most at risk will continue to be overlooked by government policy.

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