Sri Lankan construction workers taking time to adjust in Singapore

Mr Chaminda Senarath Wijerathna and Mr Pushpa Niroshana Fernando are two of about 30 Sri Lankans hired by Fonda Global Engineering. The authorities plan to ease the building sector shortfall here with Sri Lankans.
Mr Chaminda Senarath Wijerathna and Mr Pushpa Niroshana Fernando are two of about 30 Sri Lankans hired by Fonda Global Engineering. The authorities plan to ease the building sector shortfall here with Sri Lankans.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Firms hopeful they will improve amid plans to recruit more of them

Four months after arriving here with a glowing reputation, Sri Lankan construction workers are struggling to maintain their brand name.

Despite their supposed experience in the sector and their relatively good command of English, the new hires are disappointing their bosses.

Employers complained their work is not up to the mark and they struggle to adapt to Singapore's fast pace.

"We set a deadline of a day for three workers to hack a 1.2m- by-3m wall in a hawker centre. But the Sri Lankan workers were not able to finish in time," said Yang Seng Engineering operations manager Chang Chee Kit.

A reason, said employers, is that standards here are high. While the workers have experience working back home and in the Gulf states, expectations are higher here.

Mr Chen Chuan Hoong, assistant general manager of Fonda Global Engineering, which has hired about 30 Sri Lankans, cited an example. "The distance separating each tile has to be standardised. Even a small deviation is not allowed or the workers have to redo the work," he said. Some workers are also set in their ways after years of working and are less receptive to feedback, he added.

The lukewarm appraisal could sour the authorities' plans to ease the shortfall in the construction sector here with an influx of Sri Lankans. Some 120 have been recruited.

Chinese and Indian nationals, who make up the bulk of more than 300,000 construction workers in Singapore along with Bangladeshis, are increasingly preferring to stay at home where the economies are booming.

Sri Lankan workers interviewed admitted that they have not been up to scratch, especially in terms of speed.

For example, bosses expect two workers to tile a four- or five-room flat in a day, a schedule they cannot meet.

Some felt the temporary housing which they live in on construction sites and is approved by the authorities, is dirty. Others were unhappy they had to share toilets with so many other workers in purpose-built dormitories.

As a result, four Sri Lankans have returned home.

Said Mr Pushpa Niroshana Fernando, 28: "Maybe some workers feel Singapore is a clean country. So they get a shock that the dormitory is not that clean."

The Building and Construction Authority, which helped train the workers in Colombo, told The Straits Times that some attrition for new foreign workers is not unusual.

A spokesman added that feedback from employers has been positive, and three more test centres in Sri Lanka to train more incoming workers will open next year. One centre has started operations.

To manage their expectations, Mr Melvin Ong, who runs the centre in Colombo, said his trainers have started showing pictures of the dorms here to potential hires so that they can have a better idea of life here.

Bosses here are hopeful that the Sri Lankans will improve with more supervision, pointing out that the Indian workers also struggled when they first came to Singapore about 15 years ago.

Mr Chang, who hired about 20 Sri Lankans, said: "They are not there yet but I can see they are trying their best."

And the workers are keen to do better. Said Mr Chaminda Senarath Wijerathna, 34: "I tell myself I have to improve. I am here to work and earn money for my family."

ameltan@sph.com.sg