BCA seeks to cut number of foreign workers

It aims for 20% to 30% reduction by 2020 in productivity drive; building facade maintenance rules to be tightened

BCA chief John Keung, who will step down and become BCA Academy dean next month, said he will prioritise the drive for green practices.
BCA chief John Keung, who will step down and become BCA Academy dean next month, said he will prioritise the drive for green practices. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

The Building and Construction Authority (BCA) wants the industry to do more with less, and plans to slash the number of foreign workers by nearly a third by 2020.

At the same time, it will ensure that quality is not compromised, and is set to tighten the rules on building facade maintenance.

In an interview ahead of his departure from the role of BCA chief executive next month, Dr John Keung said the authority wants to slash the number of rank-and-file foreign construction workers here by 20 per cent to 30 per cent by 2020.

This is part of its continuing efforts to "reshape" the sector's workforce in line with a government push for greater productivity.

About 300,000 foreign workers are employed in the construction sector. "We aim to do that - to cut it down by 20 to 30 per cent... Whoever is left... will be the higher-skilled workers," said Dr Keung.

About four in 10 rank-and-file workers are qualified as higher- skilled workers now, and the BCA hopes more of them can be trained to push this proportion up to 50 per cent to 60 per cent by 2020.

The construction sector here started to undertake more productive building methods after the Government announced hikes in foreign-worker levies in 2010.

Meanwhile, it also looking at tightening the regulatory framework on facade inspection, to ensure that even as Singapore's buildings age, they stay in good shape.

This framework will apply to both public and private buildings to make sure facades are "regularly inspected and remain properly secured", Dr Keung said.

Courses on facade inspection will be launched later this year.

"Through normal wear and tear, older facades will need added maintenance... We hope to build up the industry's capability in this area quickly to ensure public safety," added Dr Keung.

In addition, the BCA is working on a new framework to ensure that buildings are easy to maintain.

Dr Keung said that with better training and new technologies, the industry has raised its productivity over the past three years.

For instance, site productivity, measured by site area per man-day, improved by 0.3 per cent a year in 2010. This jumped to 2 per cent a year from 2014 to last year.

"We are trying to make the cost of labour as high as possible to make sure the industry has the incentive to substitute manpower with technology," he noted.

Dr Keung, 64, will relinquish the post as chief executive as part of the BCA leadership renewal process. He is stepping into the role of dean of the BCA Academy from Thursday, after 11 years at the BCA itself.

He believes there is a good opportunity to achieve even higher productivity gains in the years to come, a task which CEO-designate Hugh Lim will continue to drive.

Boosting productivity will involve getting public-sector agencies to take the lead in adopting new technology in their projects. The public sector is estimated to account for 60 per cent to 70 per cent of total construction demand until 2020.

"We are working with at least 14 public agencies to go through all their projects, whether they are hospitals, public housing, industrial or community buildings, to work out a master productivity plan for each of the building types," he added.

This plan will guide the agencies in the construction of their projects, outlining the kinds of technologies that can be used to build more efficiently.

Dr Keung hopes that by 2020, 40 per cent of building projects here will be constructed using Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (DfMA) capabilities, up from 10 per cent now. DfMA involves moving as much on-site construction work to off-site prefabrication as possible.

As BCA Academy dean, Dr Keung will prioritise the drive towards green building practices and build up the "green-collar" talent pool, with workers who are knowledgeable in DfMA solutions as well as digital processes such as virtual design and construction.

"We want to set our industry on this particular path to the point of no return. We cannot go back to our old ways," he added.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 29, 2017, with the headline BCA seeks to cut number of foreign workers. Subscribe