Emergency legislation in the works for battered construction sector

The lack of manpower has always been a concern for the industry. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - Emergency legislation to address the severe disruption to the construction sector arising from curbs on the entry of migrant workers is in the works, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Saturday (May 1).

It will be aimed at making the burden shared more fairly between the different parties - the contractors, the developers, and the buyers, he said, adding that the Government hopes to introduce the legislation when Parliament next sits on May 10.

Union leaders and industry stakeholders welcomed further measures to support the battered sector, which continues to face issues even after the virus outbreak at the workers' dormitories was contained.

PM Lee said at a hybrid May Day Rally: "The safe management measures which are still necessary have burdened the industry.

"The manpower crunch, because some of the migrant workers have gone home, has added to its problems. Projects have been delayed. Costs have gone up. The recent ban on travellers from India has worsened the situation for the construction industry."

Minister for National Development Desmond Lee said in a Facebook post that the pandemic has delayed progress at many worksites, and affected buyers of homes and other properties.

Last year, the sector received help through job support, levy waivers and rebates, and construction restart grants. There was also legislation to defer litigation and liquidated damages, and to mandate the extension of time as well as sharing of costs from delayed finishing dates.

Mr Lee said: "We are working on further measures to help keep construction going. This includes potential legislation that PM Lee spoke about, that will enable the significant increases in labour costs to be fairly shared between developers and contractors, and between main contractors and sub-contractors."

Mr Kesavan Vasundran, president of the Building Construction And Timber Industries Employees' Union, added: "If the timeline for projects has to be stretched longer, then everyone has to understand that it is because of the pandemic. Everyone has to do their part."

But Mr Lee noted that even as these measures are given out to support firms and workers, the construction sector has to "press on with the much-needed transformation" of the industry, so that it grows more productive, efficient and manpower-lean.

Singapore National Employers Federation vice-president Douglas Foo agreed that while short-term measures can bolster the sector, it has to co-create new models of working in the future that incorporate technology to make the work safer and less labour-intensive.

The lack of manpower has always been a concern for the industry, he said, as firms tried to grapple with the lowering of the dependency ratio ceiling for foreign workers in the sector even before the pandemic.

With travel restrictions due to Covid-19, projects end up getting pushed back as these issues grow more acute.

"Today there are many projects that are being delayed. There are many construction companies that have projects that they have to deliver within a certain timeline," Mr Foo said, noting that Covid-19 legislation has helped to push back some deadlines so the firms have breathing room.

"That has kind of stabilised, but at the end of the day, you still need to deliver the project," he added.

Still, companies will be looking forward to the upcoming legislation, he said.

"The enterprises are not alone. They have got the partnership with the unions and the government agencies, so that we can come up with a plan on how they can continue to deliver those projects without compromising safety."

Straits Construction executive director Kenneth Loo said the industry is concerned about the rising costs of manpower and related problems like supply chain disruption, adding that it is also grappling with fulfilling contractual obligations on time.

"The challenge is still there and I think that is something that needs to be addressed," he said.

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