Minimart gives foreign workers a taste of home

SINGAPORE - Instead of a going to a bigger supermarket, construction worker Ganesan Thiyagarajan prefers to buy his groceries at a void deck minimart in Jurong West instead.

Because "here, we get the taste of India", said the 29-year-old Indian national.

The minimart, which was set up about a year ago, imports much of its produce - spices like cardamom and tamarind, for instance - directly from the workers' home countries.

During the festive seasons, it also stocks up on traditional sweets and snacks.

Prices are kept low for its clientele - mainly workers living in six or seven dormitories in the area. And it provides free shuttle service from the dorms.

"Profit is not the top consideration," said Mr C. V. Nathan, chairman of the Singapore Amalgamated Services Co-operative Organisation (Sasco), which runs the minimart. "We keep prices within reach, so that customers can still send some money back home."

Sasco was set up in the 1930s as a coordinating body for 12 smaller co-operatives. Now, it is mainly involved in running community programmes like eldercare and childcare facilities.

The organisation also operates two smaller convenience stores in Jurong Shipyard and Tuas. Profits from the three stores are channelled to Sasco's other community arms.

Mr Nathan hopes that in this way, co-ops can become a force for good - both in the local and foreign worker community.

"(Foreign workers) are a part and parcel of our economy," he said. "We also have to take care of them."

On a busy weekend night, the Jurong West store, located in a bomb shelter, can get more than 200 customers. "I normally buy rice and meat to make chicken briyani or mutton masala," said Mr Ganesan. "It's about 5 per cent cheaper here."

"For me, I buy chapati - ready-made," said Mr Vasigran Nawaratanam, 46. "The Indian products and house brands are all here."

The store has an informal credit system as well, based largely on goodwill and the recommendations of regular customers.

Minimart manager Abilash Sekaran said it started "slowly", after one worker asked if he could take some items and pay for them later as he had family problems.

"He was so pitiful, so I said OK," said Mr Abilash. "Sometimes they have an emergency at home, and they really need the money."

Debts can run up to a few hundred dollars each month, but Mr Abilash is confident that the money will find its way back.

"In other shops, no matter how regular you are, they won't give this kind of trust."

Sasco has plans to open one more minimart in Bukit Batok this year.

Ms Dolly Goh, chief executive of the Singapore National Co-operative Federation, which oversees co-ops here, said that co-operatives can be seen as "social enterprises" since they respond to social needs, and are not solely driven by profit.

She added: "Migrant workers in Singapore may want to come together to form co-ops to help themselves and sell products and services from their homeland."

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