Singapore's top priority is to restart construction quickly but safely after Covid-19 circuit breaker, says Desmond Lee

Minister Desmond Lee explained why stringent measures had to be imposed before construction companies were allowed to resume work progressively.
Minister Desmond Lee explained why stringent measures had to be imposed before construction companies were allowed to resume work progressively.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

SINGAPORE - A construction firm began to assiduously impose strict social distancing measures at its work site and dormitories a few months ago, yet almost 30 per cent of its workers at a project site were infected by Covid-19, said Second Minister for National Development Desmond Lee on Friday (June 5).

Recounting its efforts, he said the measures include having all the workers of a project live at the site and ensuring they are segregated, as well as disallowing those living on different levels of dormitories to mix.

The workers had not left the worksite since late March, even before circuit breaker measures kicked in.

But despite the full attention the management paid to safety and protection against the coronavirus, Covid-19 could not be kept at bay, noted Mr Lee, who is also Minister for Social and Family Development.

He cited the firm, which he did not name, to explain why stringent measures had to be imposed on construction companies before they were allowed to resume work progressively, starting from June 2.

The minister acknowledged their anxieties and eagerness to resume work, which has been suspended for two months under the circuit breaker that ended on June 1.

But the experience of the mentioned project shows how infectious the Covid-19 disease is, and how difficult it is to prevent a single case from infecting many more who live and work together, Mr Lee said during the debate on the supplementary Fortitude Budget.

"Imagine how much more challenging it might be for projects with workers living in different accommodation, or having to move between different sites."

So, it is equally important that the resumption of work is done safely, not just swiftly, he said, given that most of Covid-19 cases were construction workers.

A new case could easily cause another outbreak, which could bring the industry to a halt again, he added.

He also told the House that 60 dormitories have been cleared of Covid-19, and another 111 are due to be cleared in the coming weeks.

 
 
 

Workers tested and found free of the infection are being resettled in designated dormitory blocks.

The minister also said more regular updates will be given to the industry, including a rolling forecast of the dormitory clearance schedule to help the builders plan ahead on when their workers can return to work.

He assured the House that there is enough testing capacity for workers living in the wider community.

And that almost 20,000 safety management officers will be trained this month to ensure workers comply with safety measures, with priority given to officers in charge of projects that are ready to restart.

"Many firms in the construction sector, including many small and medium-sized enterprises, are very anxious about survival and about their future. Let me assure you that our main priority is to restart construction quickly but safely," said Mr Lee.

MANAGING SINGAPORE'S RELIANCE ON FOREIGN WORKERS

Singapore's efforts to raise productivity in construction have been going on for decades, Mr Lee said, in his reply to Nominated MP Walter Theseira, who called for a rethink of Singapore's dependence on foreign labour, particularly in construction.

Under the construction sector's Industry Transformation Map, "major structural changes" are needed on how work is done to reduce the reliance on foreign labour, including the greater adoption of technology, the minister said.

 
 
 

But the change will create higher-skilled jobs, including many good jobs for Singaporeans. Foreign workers who take on such jobs will also need to be higher skilled, he noted.

"However, the construction sector will not be able to reduce our foreign worker reliance to zero as there will still be lower-skilled jobs that Singaporeans do not want to take up.

"We appreciate the contributions of our foreign workers, who have come to Singapore to make an honest living for themselves and their families, and it is incumbent on us to also take good care of them when they are unwell," said Mr Lee.