A COMBINATION of enlightened employers and the potential for career progression draws more former convicts to the food and beverage (F&B) and hospitality industry than any other sector.
Last week, in the kitchen of Ristorante Pietrasanta, pastry cook Tanya (not her real name) was showing her new apprentice the finer points of Italian bread making, while guests in business attire were clinking glasses outside her kitchen.
It was a far cry from her situation a year ago, when she was released from prison after pushing Subutex to an undercover officer twice in November 2008. She was released from jail last November and joined the Italian restaurant shortly after.
"I couldn't accept it; I didn't know what to do. This is not my country and I have no family here," said the permanent resident. "How am I going to take care of my (primary school-age) daughter and my son?"
It was through mutual friends that Tanya met Yus, a former offender who had found a new life working at Ristorante Pietrasanta via Project Connect. The Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises (Score) initiative, started in 2005, helps match newly released prisoners with potential employers.
Last Wednesday, Score revealed at its annual awards ceremony that F&B and hospitality employers were the largest group of new employers added in the past four years, making up 28per cent, or 369 of the 1,315 who signed up between 2008 and last year.
"Some of the ex-offenders we hire might not have prior experience," said Ms Susan Hiu, HR and training manager with Fish & Co Restaurants. "A lot of them actually carry on, and even get promoted to supervisory or managerial positions after working with us for a while."
Some success stories include Daniel (not his real name), who joined Fish & Co as a kitchen supervisor a year ago, and has now been managing the seafood chain's Bugis restaurant for the past two months.
Another is Yus, Tanya's friend. After being in and out of prison five times for heroin addiction - his last sentence was for five years, with three strokes of the cane - he joined Ristorante Pietrasanta as a waiter last October with a starting salary of $1,300.
He is now earning $1,900 and is helping to manage a sister restaurant in Jalan Riang. Come December, he will be managing, by himself, a second branch opening in Teacher's Housing Estate.
But success is far from guaranteed, as many taken on do not last long. Of the 109 former offenders hired by Fish & Co since it partnered Score in 2009, only 30 are still with the organisation, says Ms Hiu.
For Ristorante Pietrasanta, five of the 16 employed since the restaurant came on board in 2010 are still working there, said chef and director Loris Massimini.
"They are usually more loyal, if you treat them well," said Mr Massimini. But retaining them is just as challenging as retaining other staff. "The percentage of ex-offenders and other people outside (who leave) is the same," he said.
What works, say employers, is putting in place a support structure to accommodate former offenders' different needs.
Yus was surprised by his boss' willingness to plan his schedule around his weekly urine tests and counselling sessions, after he said he was in recovery and showed the company his timetable. "I was like, wow. I really cannot get this kind of work elsewhere," he said.
Besides flexible scheduling, Mr Massimini says he accommodates former offenders who have turned to religion since their release, giving them time off to go to church, temple or mosque.
There are also other less obvious issues, such as how Singapore's population has changed remarkably since some former offenders were last out in society.
"My initial challenge was working with foreign colleagues," said Yus. "We are Singaporeans. When foreigners give you an order, you think, what is this? I felt like I had no face."
But then he remembered what he had learnt during his Score courses, which had prepared him for this eventuality. "They taught us that we have to be strong as Singapore now has a lot of foreigners and we have to work with them. So from there, I adapted."