Illegal worker situation at Geylang Serai Bazaar has improved over time: Fatimah Lateef

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SINGAPORE: The illegal worker situation at Geylang Serai Bazaar has improved in the last few years, the advisor to the bazaar’s organising committee, Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef, said.

31 illegal workers were arrested at this year’s bazaar – nine from Indonesia, who were nabbed on Jun 8, in addition to the 22 who were arrested in another raid there a week earlier.

Speaking at Geylang Serai Community Club, Dr Fatimah told Channel NewsAsia that the illegal worker situation was not new, and that this year, it was “not so bad”.

“Some of the years, it was quite rampant. One group would be sent away, and then another one would come. This year, we didn’t have so much. The last couple of years, the situation has been improving,” she said.

Dr Fatimah, who oversees Geylang Serai as an MP for Marine Parade GRC, said that some illegal workers even brought their own supplies and set up shop illegally alongside existing stalls at the bazaar.

In order to ensure that such issues are kept in check, every year, she sets up an inter-agency task force that includes officers from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), National Environment Agency (NEA) and Singapore Police Force. The task force, which keeps in touch through a WhatsApp chat group, also has grassroots volunteers who patrol the bazaar every night to look out for suspicious activities.

The main contractors for the bazaar have to sign a contract that legally obliges them to ensure that illegal workers do not work at the event. The contract has been improved over the years to become stricter, she said.

“The contractor may comply, but some of those they rent out the stalls (to) – they are the ones who go and get the workers. They always use the pretext that they don’t have enough Singaporeans to work,” she said.

Every time foreign workers are caught, Dr Fatimah sets up a meeting with the main contractor and gives them an advisory and a warning.

“It’s their responsibility because they sign the contract. So I call them and summon them here, and tell them to make sure that these things don’t happen because we want a happy atmosphere and occasion for everyone,” she said, adding that they have to sign an additional annex in the contract and admit to the breach.

CONCERNS OVER NON-HALAL FOOD, RUMOURS AT BAZAAR

The May 30 raid also sparked online speculation as to why a dendeng stall was being raided, with rumours that it had not been selling halal food.

Concerns over the number of non-halal stalls at the bazaar, too, arose on Facebook.

Although these concerns were new, Dr Fatimah said there was “nothing different” about the bazaar this year.

Concerns have come up over the halal status of food sold at the Geylang Serai bazaar. (Photo: Jalelah Abu Baker)

“There have always been Chinese vendors at the bazaar,” Dr Fatimah said. “Maybe there are more now, because we have more stalls. The bazaar used to be a bit smaller before, but now we are hitting close to a thousand stalls.” About 25 per cent of these stalls are food stalls.

Questions from netizens prompted The Halal Food Blog and halalfoodhunt.com to curate a list of Muslim-owned and halal-certified stalls at the bazaar. Of 170 food stalls they checked on, half were found to be unverifiable, not halal-certified, or owned by Muslims.

Ms Jumaiyah Mahathir, managing director of Chooosie Group, which operates both blogs, said that people assumed the food was generally halal and that they now use the list to decide where they buy food from.

Dr Fatimah said the expectation that all stalls should sell halal food, or be owned by Muslims “is a perception they (the Malay-Muslim community) have created for themselves”.

A practising Muslim herself, Dr Fatimah said: “According to Islamic teaching, it is said that you need to be conscious. What you put into your mouth, you have to make sure it’s halal. It is your responsibility. Therefore, we have a choice.”

She added that the tender process has remained the same and is fair to every one, while acknowledging that there are more stalls selling novelty and hipster food gradually entering the bazaar. What is sold also depends on the needs and wants of the community at large, she said.

“I think it’s quite okay to have a combination of the traditional, the new and the modern, and the fusion, to provide the platform and opportunity for some of our younger entrepreneurs,” she added.

“My conscience is clear, as the organiser. There are people who say: ‘The MP is a Muslim herself, and she is allowing Chinese stall holders to come here.’ There is nothing wrong with allowing a Chinese person to rent a stall, and selling food that doesn’t have pork and alcohol.”

There were also rumours that dog and cat meat is being sold at the bazaar, which Dr Fatimah said was not true, and damages Singapore’s reputation. 

SOME BUSINESSES FEEL THE HEAT

Although Ms Lee Ann Rahman, 29, sells halal prawn paste chicken, a traditionally Chinese dish, she saw her daily earnings dip to just S$4 at the height of the confusion over halal food two weeks ago.

Typically, she expects to see S$600 a day, based on her experience at other bazaars.

Ms Lee, a Muslim, said that her business was initially affected as it was not on the blogs’ list. She added that it did not help that the clientele for her halal Chinese food at the bazaar was typically ethnic Chinese. As the dish is not familiar to the Malay-Muslim community, the confusion led to potential customers avoiding her stall, she said.

Things have gotten better since she was added to the list, she said.

Ms Gina Tow, 23, owner of Happy Rollies, which sells ice cream rolls and watermelon drinks and desserts, is back at the Geylang Serai bazaar a third time, after consistently drawing long queues.

She said she was sad that such an issue had cropped up. She said: “They fail to see the beauty of it. There are Malays, Chinese, Indians coming. They are getting together, it’s multi-racial, and there are only good vibes here.”

Ms Gina Tow (centre) owner of Happy Rollies, said that she is sad that the issue of halal versus non-halal food has cropped up. (Photo: Jalelah Abu Baker)

Ms Tow said that although she uses halal supplies, she has observed potential customers walk away on seeing her name on the NEA licence she displays. 

However, this has not affected her business, she said.

When Channel NewsAsia visited the bazaar, signs could be seen on stall fronts announcing that food was halal, or that supplies were halal.

Muslim customers Channel NewsAsia spoke to said that while there are non-halal stalls, each individual had to be responsible for their own choices, and that having to confirm if a stall was halal-certified did not take much time.

Ms Norsena Mohd Yusof, 42, a civil servant, said that she consults the blogs’ list, and that the responsibility was on the individual to be mindful of what they ate.

“The bazaar is a good opportunity for all races to come together, to celebrate the festive spirit. I choose to take things positively,” she said.

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