Since the explosion of COVID-19 cases in migrant workers’ dormitories, their existence in Singapore was questioned by some. This is apparent when most construction workers in Singapore are of foreign nationalities as the locals were not hired for such jobs.
On this subject, Jack Sim, the founder of the World Toilet Organization, took to his Facebook on Monday (25 May) to bust several construction industry myths for the public.
Having a background in the construction industry, Mr Sim is also a founder of the Restroom Association of Singapore, the World Toilet Day initiative, and the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) Hub.
He wrote about how paying Singaporeans a higher wage in construction jobs is “good for Singapore”, adding that it is the perfect timing for Singaporeans to set foot into the construction industry amid the COVID-19-induced unemployment.
Describing his experience in construction back in 1979, Mr Sim noted that the construction workforce back then comprised of several types of craftsmen, namely Master Craftsmen, Skilled Craftsmen, and Apprentice. He mentioned that these craftsmen were Shanghainese, Singaporeans, and Malaysians – all of whom eventually returned to their home countries.
However, due to “unknown reasons” somewhere along the way, Singapore no longer hired skilled construction craftsmen; but instead, turned to Indian and Bangladeshi farmers and fishermen who had no experience in construction works.
The assumption of cheap labour began here, but Mr Sim explained that hiring migrant workers were not as cheap as what the public assumed. This is because the Government charged a “big levy” per worker. What’s more, transport and dormitory costs had to be covered for these migrant workers as well.
Busting myths about the construction industry
On the first myth that Mr Sim attempted to address, the general assumption is about how using local labour will make housing unaffordable.
He expressed that most housing costs are affected by the high land prices paid to the Government.
“Most housing costs are because of the high land prices paid to our government. The rest is interests, consultancy fees, labour and materials costs.”
Mr Sim further explained that since HDB is prefabricated, public housing productivity is higher than other construction projects. Moreover, he stated that public housing selling price is policy-driven, which justified how construction labour does not affect the prices directly.
“It’s selling price is not market-driven but policy-driven and therefore the construction labor does not directly affect the prices, because the government can always lower the land cost sold from Singapore Land Authority to HDB. Left hand to right hand.”
The labour costs are “artificially inflated” by the levies charged on the migrant workers up to S$950 per head per month. Mr Sim also revealed that the average cost of a migrant construction worker would be S$2,000 per month.
Thus, he suggested that Singapore should pay locals a good wage and attract them to construction with higher pay.
Moving on, the second myth Mr Sim focused on was how migrant construction labour is believed to be beneficial for Singapore’s economy.
According to him, if Singaporeans receive good salaries, their incomes will be able to create a “multiplier effect” within the nation.
“If the Singaporeans earn good salaries, these incomes stay to improve the quality of life for Singaporeans. This income becomes expenditure and creates a multiplier effect inside Singapore. The government gets a return of investment via taxes back and a reduction in welfare spending. This is totally viable.”
Whereas for migrant workers, they would send their income back to their home countries. Thus, the “multiplier effect” would not occur in Singapore.
Mr Sim went on to elaborate that all the cost spent on transporting and housing the migrant workers could be removed if Singapore hired locals instead. Locals do not need trucks to send them home, and that they could also sleep in their own homes and take care of their health and hygiene.
By using Japan, Finland, Australia, and Hong Kong as examples, he believed that Singapore could do the same as well.
Following the second myth, many people assumed that working construction jobs would equate working under the hot sun.
Mr Sim pointed out that only some of the construction workers are exposed to the sun, while others like electricians, dry works, air-conditioner works, carpentry, and tiling are all indoor jobs.
Lastly, he believed that the negative image of construction workers could be toppled with the help of media portrayal. He used movies like “Ah Boys To Men” as an example to show that media portrayal managed to change the image of soldiers and the Navy in Singapore.
By adjusting the pay for construction workers, Mr Sim is confident that the narrative can be changed as well.
Ending his Facebook post with a call for change, he hopes that Singapore will be able to redesign the construction industry to create jobs for locals. Redesigning the industry also meant shifting the focus to respecting craftsmanship and building a positive image for construction.
“The first important thing is to change the mindset in our decision-makers that we can localize a good portion of the Construction workforce if we focus on respecting Craftsmanship, provide good pay and create Positive Image of the industry.”