Suspending all construction work to stem coronavirus spread is a difficult trade-off: Josephine Teo

An idle construction site is seen at the junction of Serangoon Road and Towner Road on April 23, 2020.
An idle construction site is seen at the junction of Serangoon Road and Towner Road on April 23, 2020.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

SINGAPORE - The Republic had to make a hard decision and suspend all construction work as part of tighter measures that kicked in on Wednesday (April 22).

This was done to stem the risk of wider transmission of the Covid-19 virus, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo in a Facebook post on Saturday (April 25).

Reiterating a point she had made earlier, Mrs Teo wrote: "If we act fast, we're aware there's little time for employers to adjust. If we act too slowly, there is risk of wider transmission.

"This is the difficult trade-off."

Her explanation comes in the wake of social media posts and text messages that had circulated over the last two days highlighting the frustrations of some employers.

The tighter measures, which kicked in on April 22, mean that migrant workers will not be allowed to step out of all dormitories for any purpose including going to work.

The measures will apply to all companies, even those that had earlier obtained licences to operate.

Stay-home notices have been given to all 180,000 construction work permit and S Pass holders and their dependants.

"But without it, they could still be out and about.

"Should we have avoided this move? Should more time have been given? We will never really know, but time is not on our side.

"Given how quickly and widely the virus spreads, can we afford to wait? If there's anything we have learnt about the virus, taking action sooner is probably better than later," Mrs Teo said.

 
 

The updated measure is aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus among foreign workers, who have been the hardest hit, and those they come in contact with. 

Epidemiological findings of infected migrant workers are already showing links at common construction worksites.

"Even if their workers did not live in the dorms, cross-infections at the worksite may already have occurred," she added.

The Manpower Ministry (MOM) also had to nudge the 24 per cent of employers that are still paying salaries in cash to move into electronic payment for faster settlement and to prevent salary disputes down the road.

"More importantly, we have to reassure the workers and not risk them becoming anxious and restive over salaries," she said, noting that their families too are depending on them to continue to put food on the table.

 
 
 

"My team updated me that more than 2,700 employers recently applied for bank accounts for about 35,000 migrant workers. I deeply appreciate their efforts."

There has been some discussion on whether the authorities should have tested foreign workers earlier, to contain the spread of Covid-19.

Mrs Teo said MOM had sent out an advisory in February to ask employers not to send workers who are healthy for testing. This was done at the request of the Ministry of Health.

"Why? Because at that time, healthy workers were going to hospitals in droves to ask for tests.

"The worry was that thousands would show up and overwhelm healthcare workers," she explained.