Syndicate behind MRT curry puffs sellers
Indonesian lured by curry puff syndicate must go to court for infringing Environmental Public Health Act. But he says he sells puffs to support wife, children back home
Every day, he tries his best to entice crowds at MRT station underpasses to buy his curry puffs.
He has to evade authorities, as the Batam native is selling food without a licence.
He has been doing it for the past three weeks in order to support his wife and three children, aged 14, nine and seven.
Says Mr Darling, as he prefers to be known: "I'm doing this so that I have the chance to make money for my family. I don't know what else I can do."
When we found him last week and persuaded him to talk about his situation, he revealed his luck had just run out.
Auxiliary police officers had spotted Mr Darling and issued him a notice to attend court for contravening the Environmental Public Health Act.
He will face a fine of up to $5,000 and jail time if he defaults on the payment.
If he does not appear in court, an arrest warrant may be issued against him.
But this Batam native is only a "runner" in a wider syndicate, which lures people like him from Indonesian cities.
Mr Darling first became aware of the curry puff trade in March, after he lost his job as a minibus driver due to poor economic conditions in Batam.
A man he calls "Boss" had spread the word that they stand to make one to two million rupiah a day (S$100 to S$200) by selling curry puffs here.
The man arranged for him to travel to Singapore under a social visit pass and to stay in a two-room flat with around 10 other Indonesians, all of whom are also unlicensed sellers like him, claims Mr Darling.
It is not known if the flat is licensed to house the sellers.
"It's comfortable enough. I sleep on a double-decker bed and I share the room with six others.
"Like me, they are poor people too, from Medan, Java and Batam," he claims.
Attempts to make him explain more or to reveal more about Boss made Mr Darling anxious.
He declined to give us Boss' mobile number, except to say that he pays Boss $16 a day for the accommodation, inclusive of two daily meals.
He also pays him upfront for the curry puffs. Usually, he asks for 500 - at $20 per 100 curry puffs.
Starting the day with a deficit means Mr Darling has to work very hard to sell his puffs. Three curry puffs go for $1, out of which he makes 40 cents.
If he can sell all 500 puffs, he will make a "grand" profit... of $66 - well short of the one million rupiah a day he thought he could earn.
Rarely does he sell all. He says he dumps unsold puffs by the end of the day.
Nonetheless, he says he is thankful for whatever he can make.
His day starts at 4am, sorting through thousands of newly made curry puffs with the other "runners".
He takes his share of 500 curry puffs and puts them into a cardboard box.
In the late afternoon, he heads out to the various MRT stations and hawks them for as long as he can manage. There is no break. He needs to earn every cent he can.
He says he doesn't know how they are made or what goes into them.
The week before, 40-year-old Indonesian Robiah Lia Caniago was convicted after being caught selling her curry puffs without a licence.She was jailed for five days as she could not pay her $3,000 fine.
But when The New Paper on Sunday spoke to Mr Darling, he was unaware of Robiah's case and does not understand how he could be facing the same situation as her.
Says Mr Darling: "I am willing to take the risk for the sake of my family."
Runners like him are most vulnerable. He does not know of the higher workings of the syndicate, but only that he needs the money.
"I hope the authorities leave us alone. This business is actually helping a lot of poor people who depend on it to survive.
"It's not like we are dealing drugs."
'They were kneading dough with their feet'
DIRTY: An irate Madam Sa'adah Jan photographed curry puffs being prepared in unhygienic conditions at a coffee shop in Kelantan Road three years ago. She used to run a food stall beside the "factory". - PHOTOS COURTESY OF MADAM SA'ADAH JAN
Convicted of making curry puffs and selling them without a licence, Indonesian Robiah Lia Caniago spent five days in jail as she could not pay her $3,000 fine.
The National Environment Agency (NEA) has since revealed that she was part of a foreign syndicate mass-producing curry puffs from her Lengkok Bahru rental flat.
It had acted on public complaints against Madam Robiah and the flat's other occupants in June last year.
According to an NEA spokesman, they "found a foreign syndicate mass-producing curry puffs".
He continued: "During the inspection, Madam Robiah and eight other people, all of whom are on social visit passes, were preparing curry puffs on the floor of the premises.
"When questioned, Madam Robiah claimed that they were all her relatives.
"NEA's records showed that four of them had been ticketed between four to 13 times previously for illegal hawking of curry puffs at various public places, such as MRT stations.
"This was also the second time within a month that the same premises was found to be used for unlicensed mass preparation of curry puffs."
One witness to such a "factory" believes these curry puff operations are highly mobile and she concurs with NEA that they are made in "terrible" conditions.
Madam Sa'adah Jan, 35, saw an unlicensed curry puff "factory" operating out of a stall in a coffee shop at Kelantan Road three years ago.
She ran a Malay food stall beside the factory until the coffee shop was shut down by the authorities.
"They suddenly popped up one day in an empty stall and started to make curry puffs. Not hundreds, but thousands of curry puffs," she tells The New Paper on Sunday.
WATCHED FOR MONTHS
For months, Madam Sa'adah watched them as they ran an operation similar to what Mr Darling, an unlicensed curry puff seller, described.
More than 20 Indonesians produced the curry puffs by hand before passing them on to runners.
"One time, I saw a group of men 'dancing' together in the stall.
"When I went closer, they were actually kneading the dough with their feet," says Madam Sa'adah, who now runs her own restaurant.
When their operations grew bigger, some of the curry puff makers slept in the alley behind the shop.
She also caught some of them spending the night in her stall premises.
From speaking to one of the Indonesians, she found out that the stall and the sellers who collected the curry puffs did not have the proper licences from the authorities.
She also took pictures of the operation. They show the workers hanging their dirty laundry near the food, which they prepare on the floor of their stall.
But Madam Sa'adah did not report them as she was coerced not to by the other stall owners in the coffee shop.
"They told me if I called NEA, NEA would check on everyone in the coffee shop, not just the curry puff stall," she says.
A few months after she discovered the factory, NEA inspectors shut the place down.
She says: "I can't believe they are actually selling these dirty curry puffs to people, including schoolchildren."
An NEA spokesman said it takes a tough stance towards errant food operators who flout hygiene regulations, especially those who run unlicensed operations, as they could pose serious threats to public health.
Members of the public are advised not to buy food from illegal hawkers. In particular, illegally sold food items such as curry puffs may not have been prepared in accordance with proper hygiene procedures or undergone quality control checks.