Dealing with separation: Workers

Coronavirus: Companies are short of manpower, workers miss their loved ones

Covid-19 has turned the flow of people, goods and services across the 1km-long Causeway, among the busiest land borders in the world, into a trickle. The Sunday Times examines the impact on companies, workers and families on both sides of the border.

Above: Renovation contractor Alloyious Koh of Carpenters Design Group is short of manpower as he has many workers who remain stuck in Malaysia. Left: Ms Shermaine Chan with her husband Yip Ching Hing and their 20-month-old daughter, Phoebe, before th
Ms Shermaine Chan with her husband Yip Ching Hing and their 20-month-old daughter, Phoebe, before the movement restrictions between Malaysia and Singapore began. The couple, who are Malaysians working in Singapore, have not seen Phoebe for over two months. She is being looked after in Malaysia by Ms Chan's parents.PHOTO: COURTESY OF SHERMAINE CHAN
The Causeway linking Singapore and Malaysia. In the pre-Covid-19 days, more than 100,000 Malaysians commuted across the border daily to Singapore, where they worked in a wide variety of jobs, before returning home at night.
Renovation contractor Alloyious Koh of Carpenters Design Group is short of manpower as he has many workers who remain stuck in Malaysia.PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
Above: Renovation contractor Alloyious Koh of Carpenters Design Group is short of manpower as he has many workers who remain stuck in Malaysia. Left: Ms Shermaine Chan with her husband Yip Ching Hing and their 20-month-old daughter, Phoebe, before th
The Causeway linking Singapore and Malaysia. In the pre-Covid-19 days, more than 100,000 Malaysians commuted across the border daily to Singapore, where they worked in a wide variety of jobs, before returning home at night.ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

On Tuesday, when Singapore moves into the first phase of reopening the economy following the circuit breaker, renovation contractor Alloyious Koh can start work again.

But he will have a new set of challenges - he doesn't have his workers with him, because many of them remain stuck in Malaysia.

To get around the problem, Mr Koh and other renovation firms are putting aside their rivalry to share "lobang" - a Singlish term that means "opportunities" - such as manpower.

A WhatsApp group comprising about 200 companies has been set up so that they can collaborate to overcome the shortage.

"Previously, rival companies wouldn't share contacts. Now, we are sharing contacts of electricians, plumbers, carpenters, et cetera," said Mr Koh, 29, of Carpenters Design Group.

The contractors are also coordinating with one another by getting certain carpentry work such as cupboards done by workers in Malaysia, then hiring a truck driver to pick them up and deliver them to Singapore.

"We will then find someone available here to do the installation for different projects," said Mr Koh.

"We put aside our rivalry to work towards a common goal of completing the renovations so home owners can move in."

The ground-up effort by the industry, heavily reliant on Malaysian workers, is among the ways companies here are adapting as the economy reopens gradually.

In the pre-Covid-19 days, more than 100,000 Malaysians commuted across the border daily to Singapore, where they worked in a wide variety of jobs - as chefs, hairdressers, security officers, construction supervisors and professionals - before returning home at night.

They were among more than 300,000 travellers who used the Causeway every day.

 
 

Malaysians form the biggest group of foreigners in Singapore, followed by Chinese and Indonesians.

But on March 16, the Malaysian government announced it would be barring its citizens from travelling abroad from March 18, after it saw a surge in Covid-19 cases.

While some workers dashed into Singapore before the border closed, others remained in Malaysia.

There are no official statistics for the number of Malaysian workers here now, but the Malaysian authorities said last month that there were about 45,000 Malaysians working in Singapore when the Republic entered the circuit breaker period.

The outbreak-induced movement restrictions between Singapore and Malaysia have been painful for some companies, especially those that have many Malaysian workers.

About 80 per cent of workers in the renovation trade, for instance, are Malaysians, said Mr Sky Tan, president of the Singapore Renovation Contractors and Material Suppliers Association (RCMA). Most of them are now in Malaysia.

The labour shortage brought on by this - as well as the safety criteria that renovation contractors need to comply with - mean that projects will be delayed even when they are allowed to resume.

"We can't start work immediately," he said.

 
 

Other sectors with large numbers of Malaysian workers, such as the cleaning and security industries, are also trying to cope with the temporary manpower disruption.

Security firm Aetos, which saw 10 per cent of its Malaysian workforce remaining in Malaysia, managed to plug the gap by redeploying and calling upon its reserve pool of officers.

It is also actively seeking to recruit Singaporeans and has seen more than 200 job applications in the past two months, the majority of them from citizens.

Such planning will mitigate the fact that the labour shortage will not be speedily resolved.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said last Thursday that Singapore is in talks with Malaysia to ease border curbs that will allow workers to travel between both countries safely.

But even after travel restrictions between the two neighbours are lifted, the situation will not return to what it was before, when large numbers of people moved through the land crossings, he noted.

JOBS AT STAKE

The cost of separation between workers and companies cuts both ways.

For workers who remain in Malaysia, it means jobs jeopardised and plans scuppered. For those here, it means a long separation from their families at home.

Malaysian Association in Singapore (Masis) president Aarathi Arumugam said Malaysian workers feared losing their jobs if they stayed home, and many had scrambled to find temporary accommodation in Singapore.

But others chose to remain in Malaysia, or were unable to make it back to Singapore in time.

 
 

For this group, pay cuts, being put on no-pay leave and even losing their jobs loom large.

All work pass holders planning to enter Singapore from any country need the Ministry of Manpower's approval before they can begin their journey. Malaysians also cannot leave their country unless they get official approval to do so.

A 29-year-old Malaysian who works as a human resource executive in a construction firm had left Singapore for a holiday in New Zealand on March 6, and found herself unable to return to Singapore.

Since then, she has made at least 20 online applications for permits to leave Malaysia and enter Singapore, but to no avail.

Now in Sarawak, the woman, who wants to be known only as Ms Lee, said she cannot contribute much by working from home as most of her documents are in the office.

"I am worried my boss will think he doesn't need me," she said. "If I lose my job, it will be very hard for me to find another one, whether in Singapore or Malaysia."

FAMILIES SEPARATED

Those in Singapore face different woes. They have had to contend with challenges ranging from finding accommodation to long periods of separation from family.

Masis said it is helping about 50 Malaysians in Singapore with their rent, and has received more than 200 inquiries from those affected in other ways.

Some companies here have promised their workers accommodation, but some said this could be inadequate.

A 22-year-old Malaysian clerk, who wants to be known only as Ms Chen, said she and her colleague were put up by her company in a construction container in Tuas.

Ms Chen, who used to commute daily from her home in Johor, said they slept on a thin mattress on the floor, and the toilet was far away.

After staying in the container for five weeks, she resigned. "My manager said the only way for me to return to Malaysia is to quit."

She is back home in Johor now.

The pain of being separated from families can be acute.

Ms Shermaine Chan, 28, who works here as a retail assistant, and her husband, who also works in the retail industry here, have not seen their 20-month-old daughter - who is being taken care of by Ms Chan's parents - for more than two months.

"I miss my daughter so much. I video call her every day," said Ms Chan, who used to make weekly trips home to Johor.

"I feel sorry that I can't spend time with her. To make up for lost time, I have been buying her a lot of toys online."

Those torn between staying here and going home are in limbo.

For Ms Valerie Clarissa Ann Dev, the clock is ticking as she sends out resume after resume in hopes of finding work here.

The 30-year-old former operations executive at a logistics firm was retrenched in early March, and her S Pass was cancelled on May 21, leaving her with a month to find another job in Singapore.

"It's a tough decision between staying here or returning to Malaysia. I spent a year applying for jobs in Singapore before I got one," said Ms Dev, who has been living in Singapore for two years.

She has also been searching for a way to return to Kuala Lumpur, but has not been able to find available flights or buses.

"I've heard of people who are desperate enough to walk across the Causeway," she said, "but I don't think I will do that. I'll keep trying on both fronts."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 31, 2020, with the headline 'Workers: Companies are short of manpower, workers miss their loved ones '. Subscribe