A fruit stall in Little India

Inflation and the rise in the cost of living have been headline news globally since the end of the Covid-19 pandemic. Our intern decided to take a look at how this impacted low-wage migrant workers in Singapore. Of the various kinds of expenditure that workers would have to bear on a regular basis, food would have been the biggest, and this was chosen as the reference spending item for his research.

The pandemic also caused considerable disruption to employment. Many workers were repatriated as Covid-19 spread, finding themselves without work in their home countries while waiting for a chance to return here. Depletion of savings and the impact of inflation on their families in the home countries might mean that even after being able to return to Singapore to resume working, financial pressures remained heightened. Our intern incorporated the question of remittances into his study.

When labour migration was disrupted by closed borders, some of those who remained in Singapore enjoyed salary increases largely due to the temporary shortage of workers. Have the increased salaries remained in place to benefit workers? What about newer workers arriving after the pandemic – do they benefit?

The study employed a mix of methods. First, an online survey was conducted, bringing in 493 valid responses from Bangladeshi and Indian Work Permit holders. Then two focus group discussions were organised wherein workers themselves helped to interpret and lend depth to the findings. The questions in the survey and focus group discussion focussed on (1) salaries, (2) food expenses, (3) remittances and (4) agent fee loans and debt.

Where needed, we used two reference points in time: the year 2019, which was the last year before Covid-19, and the current year (2023).


We found that salaries have increased across the board from 2019 to 2023, although salary progression and increments were highly uneven within the population.

Food inflation was found to be significant. Most workers spent more not only on their catered meal plans, but also on supplementary meal and food-related expenses. Food quality and quantity was found to have either remained the same, or worsened, even as workers paid more.

A minority of workers who were not on catering plans and who cooked their own meals saw a significant increase in the prices they paid for their ingredients, reducing their meat consumption compared to 2019 as a way to reduce costs.

Remittances have also increased compared to 2019. Workers reported increased family expectations and pressure due to high inflation in their home countries.

Agent costs seem also to have risen since 2019; this means that workers have take on more debt to work in Singapore. In response, workers report having to tighten their belts by reducing other kinds of discretionary spending or their rate of savings.

The report in pdf format (41 pages) can be downloaded by clicking on the icon at right.