It is time to look carefully at what Singapore migrant workers eat.
Brief: The pandemic had thrown open the closed world of how migrant workers live and work and one issue needs addressing — how poor their diets are, says one observer who also offers a solution.
According to a study published by the United States National Institute of Health, “Poor nutritional status predisposes to certain infections”. Renata Micha, a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and co-author of the UN Global Nutrition Report states that “Undernourished people have a weaker immune system which puts them at greater risk of severe illness due to virus”. The science is well understood. Resistance to infection can be improved by restoring deficient micronutrients (essential vitamins and minerals) to recommended levels.
No study of migrant worker health has been done in Singapore. What has been done is an examination of what workers eat. In a 2015 study of migrant workers’ food by the National University of Singapore, food quality was a major complaint. The NUS study called for better regulation of the food supply for workers, but little has been done.
In the study, Mr. Lolon, a construction worker living in a dormitory, says, “We feel weak at our workplaces; have no energy due to the food we eat. But we have no choice.”
He has no choice because, like many workers, he does not get to decide what he eats. The meals are delivered in packets by contracted caterers to his worker dormitory.
Low levels of micronutrients contribute to fatigue, muscle aches, and poor concentration. When a person with low immunity is infected, they will suffer worse symptoms, be infected for longer, and therefore be contagious for longer. Additionally, lost productivity and the cost of medical care can be reduced if workers are healthier. It is in the public interest to care about nutrition for workers.
The Ministry of Manpower has taken responsibility for feeding migrant workers living in dormitories during the pandemic, but as Singapore returns to normal the concern about food quality needs to be addressed.
HOW THE MIGRANT WORKER MEAL INDUSTRY WORKS
According to a report on Singapore migrant workers’ food by the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation, “the lack of access to decent food is an everyday reality of life”.
Singapore companies that specialize in monthly meal plans for migrant workers charge between $125 and $150 per month for three meals a day. Meals are supplied in bulk from caterers, which are often selected by employers or middlemen. Typically, the workers have the meal plan deducted from their pay.
At $1.38 to $1.66 per meal, the food cannot contain sufficient produce and meat to provide enough micronutrients to people who labor for a living.
If employers were to provide more nutritious meals, the price would go up and workers would complain about that. Everyone in the system is cost-driven, even the end consumer. Market mechanisms alone will not fix the problem.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Because of the gruelling labour required of workers, they consume about 800 grams of white rice per day to meet their calorie needs. The rice may be the key to supplying sufficient micronutrients at a low cost through fortification. Fortification is adding essential micronutrients to staples in the food supply.
Many people are under the mistaken impression that fortification is for poor countries. They are unaware that the United States has had mandatory food fortification since World War II based on the good results from implementing it initially for soldiers.
Almost all countries of the Americas require fortification. The United Kingdom mandates fortification and many European countries have extensive voluntary fortification programs. Australia has mandatory fortification. In Asia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and several others do as well.
Rice fortification is the policy recommendation of the World Health Organization in a guidelines paper published in 2018. It’s time for Singapore to join the trend and a good place to start is with the migrant workers. Here’s how.
The workers’ rice supply should simply be fortified with micronutrients under a government guideline or mandate.
In taste tests, participants are not able to tell the rice is fortified. Likewise, the cook cannot tell fortified rice from ordinary rice. The additional cost to fortify rice for each worker is only about 10 cents per day.
The free market cannot be expected to care for worker nutrition as the profit incentives drive to the lowest possible cost and the consumer has no power in this case. It is in such situations that the government has a role to play.
A regulation that requires fortified rice for migrant workers would be simple to implement and raise the bar for all market participants evenly, thus not economically disadvantaging those employers who want to offer fortification.
Market-forces attempts have already been tried. 45Rice Pte. Ltd., was a social enterprise in Singapore that worked with caterers and employers to provide fortified rice meals for migrant workers. Unfortunately, there were too few market participants that cared enough about the health benefits to sustain the business. Jack Sim, the founder, said, “Without enough interest, we could not produce enough working capital to scale the rice fortification business and had to shut it down”.
Foodness Asia Pte. Ltd. is another social enterprise that offers rice fortification. It specialises in providing fortified rice to vulnerable communities but has not been able to establish a sustainable market for migrant workers. Its clients are mainly dieticians who decide on the menu at central kitchens, such as in eldercare facilities. These experts understand the value of food fortification.
Foodness Asia supplies some caterers who bring meals to worker dormitories and they work closely with NGOs that support migrant workers, but John Lui, General Manager of Foodness Asia says, “The lack of economic incentives, and frankly lack of caring, make rice fortification for migrant workers very challenging.”
Nutrition should be required, just like hard hats and steel-toed shoes, which are mandated not just because we care about workers’ safety, but also because it is more cost-effective than injuries. Just as standards are being set now for things like the amount of space per dormitory occupant, they must also set for the food they eat.
Current regulations already stipulate that employers of migrant workers must “take such measures as are necessary to ensure the safety and health of the migrant employee at work”. The Ministry of Manpower just needs to extend this “health” idea to include nutritional requirements.
Caterers preparing meals for workers would just specify fortified rice from their suppliers. Dormitories with mini-marts would be required to stock fortified rice.
By mandating that migrant worker rice be fortified, they benefit from micronutrients the fortification provides. Healthier workers are less likely to get as sick and recover faster, meaning they are not as prevalent as vectors for inflection. Higher vitality increases productivity and reduces sick days. Everyone would benefit from a healthier migrant worker population, not just the workers themselves.