There are no easy solutions to the food safety issues that migrant workers face, caterers and observers said.
Efforts to improve service are hampered by middlemen who make off with workers' money, in amounts that can go up to $100,000, several catering company bosses told The Sunday Times. Delivering meals three times a day would also not be affordable for workers.
"The situation can be improved but it will cost more," said catering company United's secretary Roger Nai. He was responding to a survey out on Thursday by the National University of Singapore's Centre for Culture-Centred Approach to Research and Evaluation and migrant worker group HealthServe.
The survey of 500 Bangladeshi workers here found that over nine in 10 say they are given unhygienic food to eat. Many also reported having to eat stale food prepared by companies 12 hours earlier.
Workers who do not cook usually purchase meals through middlemen, who collect orders and money and deal with catering companies.
But these middlemen are often the target of complaints of both workers and caterers. These men, often workers themselves, sometimes abscond with the workers' payments, leaving caterers in the lurch with losses of anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000. "Companies may not be able to invest in improving their processes without guaranteed payments," said ISO Delight business development manager Kassler Peh.
Workers also said that the middlemen cream off part of the fees they give them, resulting in the food they get being worth significantly less than the $120 to $130 they pay each month.
One solution workers suggested is being provided with cooking facilities, so that they can prepare cheap and nutritious meals for themselves.
Another solution could be to deliver food in three batches, instead of the current practice of delivering lunch along with breakfast before workers head out.
But a manager at Aysha Catering, who did not want to be named, estimated that this could cost around $45 more per month per worker.
"Workers go to different worksites and there are so many locations around Singapore," he said.
According to National Environment Agency (NEA) regulations, catered food must be time-stamped to show when it was cooked and when it should be consumed by - within four hours after cooking, and kept between 5 deg C and 60 deg C. But many caterers start preparing food for breakfast and lunch at around midnight, and it reaches dormitories at around 5am, while workers usually have lunch around noon.
An NEA spokesman said that since the time-stamping regulations were implemented in 2012, the agency has taken 13 enforcement actions against caterers who flouted the rules. It received 20 complaints on time-stamping issues.
The NEA also conducted 1,400 inspections on licensed food caterers in the first five months of this year, and more than 80 enforcement actions were taken against errant caterers.
Mr Zainudin Nordin, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower, suggested that there be an avenue for workers to highlight bad practices by caterers, similar to how they can bring up salary disputes. Employers can also liaise with catering companies directly, he said. "It could give them more clout to ask for verification from caterers."
Some caterers are taking action - speeding up the food preparation process with machines that cook curry or pack vegetables, so that the food does not sit out for so long.
United's Mr Nai thinks he has another solution: food warmers that keep boxes of food heated to at least 61 deg C, so that they can be kept longer than four hours. But he has been unable to find companies willing to absorb the cost of the warmers.
"I've already brought in samples from overseas but they're all sitting in my factory," he said. "There's no place for me to get my service in."
This article was first published on June 14, 2015.
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