Language barriers trip food workers

Food-safety training should make allowances for more languages, some restaurant staff say.

ABU DHABI // Shakir Ahmed has a bit of trouble stringing together sentences in English. Yet the 24-year-old native of Sri Lanka, a waiter at Cosi, a restaurant and cafe in Al Wahda Mall, passed his hygiene-training exam last year. Still, the system is in need of improvement he said, and he did not seem surprised at the low success rate; he was one of only 38 per cent of restaurant staff taking the food-safety test in 2009 who passed it.

"I know friends, chefs and managers, who did it five times and they failed," said Mr Ahmed. "They say the main reason is ... they don't have [exams] in their mother tongue." Tests and training were conducted in Arabic, English and Urdu. English is important in the industry, Mr Ahmed said, but he believes it is only fair to accommodate other nationalities when conducting training and giving examinations.

Using pictures in training or examinations could help staff who understand correct procedures in passing a test in a language not their own, Mr Ahmed said. It was also hard to retain information, he said, because training often ran seven consecutive hours. Questions for staff in the multiple-choice test covered a wide range of topics, such as what temperature to keep goods in the kitchen and ways to maintain personal cleanliness.

Erwen Tiol, a Filipino waiter at a cafe in Al Wahda Mall, said he did not pass the exam although the questions were clear and most of them were covered in the training. "The answer options were a bit confusing," he said. "For example, there was a question: what should not be placed in an oven? The options were plastic, plastic containers or vacuum bags, and a few other options that I don't remember."

Mr Tiol said he was still not sure what the correct answer was. Mohammed Galal, an Egyptian, passed the test after several colleagues at Fuddruckers failed. "No one was taking it seriously," he said, adding that he and four other waiters paid more attention during training. He said he believed those who did the exam in Arabic found it more complicated because the terms in Arabic are harder than in English.

A Filipina waitress was surprised that 62 per cent of those taking the test in 2009 failed to pass it. "It's not too hard. If language is the main problem then they can do something about it," she said. The pass rate for food workers has declined steadily since last summer, when it reached a high of 55 per cent. That rate was as low as 10 per cent in the first two months the exams were introduced, but reached 38 per for the year. Just over 16,700 workers have gone through training so far in the capital, out of 42,000.

Workers who received hygiene training at their workplace had a higher pass rate, officials said.