A worker finds a cockroach in the meal delivered to his dormitory by a catering company

In June, one of our interns held two focus group discussions with Indian and Bangladeshi workers on the topic of salary progression and the cost of living. As often with such conversations, there was some veering off course. These off-topic remarks are unlikely to make it into the study report. However, rather than discard them, we think it may be useful to capture them here in a stand-alone article since they represent spontaneous top-of-mind thoughts the participants had. These remarks are valuable in giving us a glimpse into their concerns in Singapore.


Catered meals are almost universally derided as being of poor quality, despite recent increases in price. “All catering taste the same. Last time also no good, now also no good,” said one man, while another added, “food very oily, the vegetable, fish, meat not properly washing, no cooking properly.”

A third worker was of the opinion that even though the price had gone up, the quality had gone down. “Last time more fresh and also cheap. Now ah, no fresh and also expensive.” It was a problem affecting lots of workers, he pointed out: “All man same.”

A fourth worker mentioned that he sometimes has to cover his eyes to stuff food down. There was no alternative to consuming what had been delivered however unappetising it might be, because he needed the energy to work. Buying meals from elsewhere meant extra time and money he did not have.

Even if one had the time and means to buy meals from around the neighbourhood, food suitable for their palate tended to cost more. “Any place also have Chinese food… three or four dollars can get. But you want find Indian or Bangla food, you must pay minimum six dollars.” If they were to buy food from outside on a regular basis, it could easily cost them $400 a month, which is some two-thirds of the monthly salary of many less-skilled construction workers. This is unsustainable.

There was one participant whose employer put him in a cheap hotel instead of a dormitory. With neither a catering option nor cooking facilities where he was made to stay, he was spending $300 – $400 a month just on food, he said.

As for the option of cooking one’s own meals, workers pointed out that “most” dorms did not have kitchen facilities and they were forbidden from preparing meals in their own rooms. “Most of the dormitory cooking cannot,” a man pointed out. Another participant was of the opinion that self-cooking facilities have been reduced. “After Corona,” he said, “many temporary dormitory have no cooking place.”

Journey time

Some workers are employed by companies with multiple projects at different sites. Transportation to work can then become a problem if the lorry route involves dropping workers off at multiple locations. The participants in our discussion shared that their lorries come at a very early hour to pick them up so as to beat the morning traffic. As a result, they have to wake up very early. On reaching the worksite, they find themselves waiting one to two hours before they start work.

The same problem is repeated in reverse at the end of the shift. They may have to wait at the worksite for one to two hours before the lorry arrives to pick them up, followed by a circuitous journey back to the dormitory as the vehicle goes on one place to another.

Summing up, a worker said, “Singapore two problem headache – food catering and lorry pickup.”

Home leave

Under the Employment Act, all employees, including migrant workers are entitled to annual leave. Migrant workers however, would strongly prefer to spend their leave back home with their families, but there is no obligation on employers to buy the flight tickets for home leave.

Employers are only liable for the flight ticket for repatriation, at the end of the contract.

The Covid-19 pandemic has upended aviation costs and prices. Even post-pandemic, prices are higher than before. “Air ticket: last time I go Bangladesh, 600 round ticket,” said a worker. “So if you want to every year go back Bangladesh not possible.”

And for this reason (among other concerns) several workers in our discussion groups said they had not been home for many years now.

Dashed hopes

Many workers come to Singapore thinking that they can just work for five years to have enough money to live comfortably back home. They soon find that reality is much harsher. Loans taken for agent and training fees can trap them in a vicious cycle of debt if a job is unstable. Each time they have to find a new job they may have to take up new loans to pay agents all over again.

And then, even if they’re lucky in having a stable job, they will want to get married and start a family, which in turn changes the cost dynamics. They realise the nest egg has to be much larger before they can call it a day.  “Of course need to work more years. Because if I go Bangladesh, I also need money. If I no money, I cannot get job, do business also. Must money more before I go Bangladesh I can do anything.”

The five-year horizon keeps slipping away. “Everybody thinking ah, I go five years working, five years money coming, I go back do business.” However, “one year after” a worker has been in Singapore, “I thinking twenty years also cannot finish.”

Another guy at the same table summed it up: “You one time come already means you cannot go, until you old.”