Allow foreign workers into S'pore in safe and controlled manner, say construction firms

An industry committee warned that home buyers waiting for their HDB and private property may have to wait even longer for their properties to be completed.
An industry committee warned that home buyers waiting for their HDB and private property may have to wait even longer for their properties to be completed.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Key representatives from the construction industry and built environment sector are appealing to the Government to allow foreign workers to enter Singapore in a safe and controlled manner as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to cause manpower constraints.

A statement issued on Monday (May 17) by the Construction Industry Joint Committee - comprising The Institution of Engineers, Singapore, the Real Estate Developers' Association of Singapore (Redas) and the Singapore Contractors Association, among others - said that while the industry is supportive of the Government's efforts to curb a resurgence of Covid-19 as new virus variants emerge in Singapore, manpower challenges will be seriously exacerbated if borders are shut for a prolonged period.

"The complexity and nature of construction work necessitates the deployment of workers from various trades, and the current reduced workforce is already working at maximum capacity, increasing the risks of workplace incidents. We are suffering from reduced productivity due to safe management measures at worksites, and many of our migrant workers plan to return home when their work permits expire," said the committee, which was set up in 2000.

Latest figures from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) showed there were 3,300 cases of workplace injuries from January to March, up from 3,100 cases for the same period last year. The authority found more than 3,200 workplace safety and health contraventions during inspections carried out between January and April this year, which were almost double the 1,800 breaches for the same period last year.

Mr David Leong, general manager of projects at Low Keng Huat (Singapore) told The Straits Times that at least 20 per cent of foreign migrant workers have left the company to return home since the Covid-19 outbreak last year.

The shrinking pool of migrant workers has also led to some firms poaching workers from their competitors.

"When there's a shortage, everybody tries to get foreign workers. The situation is not too desirable, but it's happening," said Mr Leong.

Latest condominium projects by the mainboard-listed builder includes Klimt Cairnhill and Dalvey Haus.

Mr Leong said that the manpower crunch has made it challenging to begin construction of both the high-end condominiums.

"We bite the bullet. We get labour from a labour supplier at a higher cost," said Mr Leong, adding that the company is paying some 30 to 40 per cent more for labour from the local supplier.

In its statement, the committee, which includes other members like the Association of Consulting Engineers Singapore, the Singapore Green Building Council, the Singapore Institute of Architects, the Singapore Institute of Building, the Singapore Institute of Surveyors and Valuers, and the Society of Project Managers, warned that home buyers waiting for their HDB and private property may have to wait even longer for their properties to be completed.

"Public infrastructure projects such as hospitals, MRT and schools and industrial developments which are vital to the nation's economy and people's lives would be badly disrupted. Maintenance works would also be stalled," it said.

Some developers told Redas that the severity of the manpower crunch could see some projects delayed by more than a year.

Beng Khim Engineering and Construction director Thomas Oh said the pandemic had led to some of his projects being delayed by six months.

"In this one year, we lost about 120 workers who wanted to return home to India and Bangladesh. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, we had 370 foreign workers. Only 15 of them who left, returned," said Mr Oh.

Due to the shortage of labour, Mr Oh said he decided to take up only one small project this year.

"Every day, I get four to five calls from my workers, some of them cried and begged me to let them go home. It is understandable. But I also try to explain to them the situation in their home country and how it would be difficult for them to return to Singapore later to work," he said.

"The main reason is that they miss their families back home. They give all sorts of reasons like how their mothers and wives are quarrelling with each other or someone in the family is getting married. These are very big issues to them and they want to go home even if it means losing their jobs here."

Statistics from MOM showed that there were about 311,000 foreigners working in Singapore in the construction, marine and process sectors in December 2020, down from 370,100 in December 2019.

Stakeholders in the construction sector told ST that most are from India and Bangladesh.

With the built environment industry consisting of more than 18,000 firms and hiring tens of thousands of Singaporeans, jobs could be at stake if the sector is further impacted. When workers leave Singapore, new workers are needed to take their place in order for projects to be completed.

"While we need to maintain tight border control measures to protect Singaporeans, we urge the Government to adopt a balanced approach and work with industry to allow the recruitment and inflow of foreign manpower. We are prepared to work with the relevant agencies and stakeholders to establish a viable end-to-end system to bring in migrant workers in a safe and controlled manner so as to enable work to continue, while keeping Singaporeans safe," said the committee.

"The industry also hopes that the Government will consider additional relief measures to help all stakeholders in the built environment sector to cope with the increased challenges as a result of the tightened border measures."

The industry is committed to accelerating the adoption of labour-efficient construction methods such as prefabrication initiatives, embracing technology to achieve higher productivity and redesigning processes and upskilling the workforce to create good jobs for Singaporeans, it added.