While Singapore will continue to push for fewer foreign workers, it is not realistic to do without them entirely in the construction industry, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said yesterday, as he unveiled plans for new dormitories for workers.
Despite efforts to reduce their number and increase the "Singaporean core" in this sector over the years, there is still a lot of manual work required at work sites, which is hard to fill with locals, Mr Wong noted in response to a question about the Government's projections for the number of foreign workers, during a virtual media conference.
Questions have been raised by political commentators about the need to have so many foreign workers in Singapore, following the coronavirus outbreak in dorms. Migrant workers account for more than 90 per cent of the 35,292 cases in Singapore so far.
Several business groups and trade associations, including those representing the construction sector, issued statements last week against calls to restrict their foreign worker numbers, saying that doing so would hurt Singapore's economic recovery and harm job prospects for Singaporeans.
Non-governmental organisations have long highlighted the hygiene and welfare issues in cramped workers' quarters, and Mr Wong announced yesterday that 100,000 dorm spaces will be built in the next few years. Among the aims is to reduce the density in dorms.
He said the bulk of migrant workers are in the construction sector, numbering about 320,000.
"We have, over the years, in fact, been trying to reduce that number. It is not a new thing."
Some progress has been made, with good take-up rates for scholarships, Mr Wong said, and these scholarship holders have a range of jobs, from architects to engineers and project managers.
But there is still a lot of manual work required at construction work sites. "So, I think it will not be realistic to talk about doing away entirely with migrant workers in the construction sector," he added.
"We will continue to give a bigger push towards our automation and prefabricated initiatives that is already happening in the built environment."