Building sector appeals for foreign workers to be let in

The Construction Industry Joint Committee said the built environment sector is committed to accelerating the adoption of labour-efficient construction methods, embracing technology to achieve higher productivity, and upskilling the workforce to creat
The Construction Industry Joint Committee said the built environment sector is committed to accelerating the adoption of labour-efficient construction methods, embracing technology to achieve higher productivity, and upskilling the workforce to create good jobs for Singaporeans. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

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 yesterday by the Construction Industry Joint Committee - comprising The Institution of Engineers, Singapore; Real Estate Developers' Association of Singapore; and Singapore Contractors Association, among others - said that while the industry is supportive of the Government's efforts to curb a resurgence of Covid-19, manpower challenges will be seriously exacerbated if borders are shut for a prolonged period.

"The complexity and nature of construction work necessitate 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) show that there were 3,300 cases of workplace injuries from January to March, up from 3,100 in the same period last year.

The authorities also found more than 3,200 workplace safety and health contraventions during inspections carried out between January and last month, almost double the 1,800 breaches in 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 his 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 desirable, but it's happening," said Mr Leong.

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

Mr Leong said it is challenging to begin building. "We bite the bullet. We get labour from a labour supplier at a higher cost," he added, saying the company is paying some 30 per cent to 40 per cent more for labour from the local supplier.

In its statement, the committee warned that home buyers waiting for their HDB flats and private property may have to wait even longer for their properties to be completed, and public infrastructure projects would suffer disruptions.

Beng Khim Engineering and Construction director Thomas Oh said: "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 (who left) returned."

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 cry and beg 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."

MOM statistics show that there were about 311,000 foreigners working in Singapore in the construction, marine and process sectors in December last year, down from 370,100 in December 2019.

Urging a "balanced approach" between border controls and manpower needs, the committee said it hoped for additional relief measures from the Government for the built environment sector.

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

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2021, with the headline Building sector appeals for foreign workers to be let in. Subscribe