Small savings in time, work can reap big dividends

Mr Andrew Lee, 31, Rooms Division Manager at the Holiday Inn Singapore Atrium, using a passport/credit card scanner at the reception counter, which shortens each check-in by about two minutes. -- ST PHOTO: RAJ NADARAJAN
Mr Andrew Lee, 31, Rooms Division Manager at the Holiday Inn Singapore Atrium, using a passport/credit card scanner at the reception counter, which shortens each check-in by about two minutes. -- ST PHOTO: RAJ NADARAJAN

New foreign labour cuts since July 1 put even more pressure on firms here. In the second of a five-part series, The Straits Times looks at how companies are coping.

As the labour crunch bites, some firms are willing to do a lot to save a little manpower - shaving off a few minutes here and there in the hope that it will add up.

Take the time workers spent waiting around at construction sites for materials such as ready-mixed concrete or asphalt premix to be delivered.

To save those wasted minutes, construction firm Samwoh Corporation spent more than $300,000 fitting its 300-odd trucks with Global Positioning System units.

"We can monitor all our trucks on the road on the computer screen at any time, and hence optimise the delivery speed and reduce waiting time," said chief operating officer Ho Nyok Yong.

This way, workers could be deployed to do other work first.

As the tight labour situation persists, productivity is valuable not just to boost business but as a way to cope with staff scarcity.

The construction industry has seen its quotas or man-year entitlements slashed by 45 per cent since 2010, and levies are set to rise steadily in the next two years.

So even tasks as peripheral as clearing debris from a work site can be improved.

At the D'Leedon condominium construction site, each 36-storey block has refuse chutes with openings on every floor. Debris is thrown down these chutes into a disposal area, which builds up and must be cleared.

When this happens, all chute openings must be temporarily closed so that workers in the disposal area are not hit by debris.

Previously, workers went from floor to floor to close all the openings. Though this took only 5-1/2 minutes for each level, seven 36-storey blocks meant some 22 man-hours' work.

Earlier this year, site contractor Woh Hup hit on a solution.

When an infrared sensor detects that the disposal area is being cleared, a pneumatic tube system makes the chute covers swing shut.

Costing $6,000 per block to install, the system "saves" 2.46 men per day. This is a fraction of the 2,100 or so workers on-site each day, but every bit counts.

"This means that the two men can be tasked to perform other activities on site, which will aid in the progress of the site," said Woh Hup Workplace Safety, Health and Environmental manager Don Wilson Paua.

Construction firms are not the only ones seeking to save time and manpower. The services industry has also faced waves of foreign labour curbs in the form of higher levies and tighter quotas.

From July, the maximum proportion of foreigners in a service firm is 40 per cent, down from 45 per cent before.

The good news is that this applies to new hires, with firms not having to shed existing workers until 2015. Such lead-times have been the norm for foreign labour tightening measures - and Holiday Inn Singapore Atrium has made the most of it.

"We mapped out our people strategy more than 18 months ago," said executive assistant manager Kung Teong Wah.

Passport and credit card scanners at reception, for instance, have cut check-in times from five minutes to three.

At Royal Plaza on Scotts, even rubbish gets renewed attention. Before, two stewards would push bins up a slope to the garbage disposal - a 10-minute trudge - six to eight times a day.

But after a rail conveyor was installed, it takes five minutes and one worker to do the job.

The savings may be just five minutes each time, but general manager Patrick Fiat noted that this means 10,800 minutes a year.

"Since only one steward is required to do the job... the other employee can be deployed to cover other duties," he added.

As the labour crunch continues, saving man-hours, every micro second of it, counts.

janiceh@sph.com.sg

TOMORROW: FIRMS SEEK WORKERS FROM NEW COUNTRIES