Following the surge in COVID-19 cases in India, the Singapore government announced that all long-term pass holders and short-term visitors who have travelled to India within the last 14 days are barred from entering or transiting via Singapore since 21 April.
Additionally, the same entry ban also kicked in on Saturday (1 May) for all long-term pass holders and short-term visitors who have been in Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
As such, this has resulted in shortage of manpower, especially in industries like construction and landscape maintenance, given that they employ mainly workers from India and Bangladesh, the Straits Times (ST) reported.
In fact, home buyers have been warned to expect longer waiting times for their property and higher costs as construction companies resort to hiring workers from other countries like China and Myanmar to look for alternative manpower, which can be costly due to the increased demand.
HSL Group chief executive Charles Quek said to ST that the company hoped to bring in about 100 more new building workers from India over the next few months, but those hopes will not come true due to the current entry ban.
“On the one hand, we need more workers to come in to complete projects; on the other hand, the construction sector cannot afford a second COVID-19 outbreak,” he said.
Commenting on Westlite Woodlands dormitory cluster, Mr Quek said: “If more dorms get affected and go into lockdown, the effect will be even worse than what we’re going through now. At least projects are still moving now, even if it’s at a slower pace than before.”
Mr Quek added that his company’s construction projects have been going on only with 70 percent of manpower compared with pre-COVID-19 days. Additionally, productivity is even lower as workers have to follow safe management measures while at worksites.
“This restriction will set projects back by a few months but it’s very difficult to say how long exactly because we don’t know how long the restrictions will be in place,” he noted.
Apart from housing, other building such as healthcare facilities and infrastructure projects will also be delayed, said the Singapore Contractors Association Ltd (SCAL).
Firms in both the construction and landscape maintenance industries noted that they had to reshuffle existing resources and give importance to urgent projects.
Straits Construction executive director Kenneth Loo said to ST: “We’ll just have to work with the resources on hand, planning according to what is urgent in the immediate short term and finding alternative ways of doing things. If projects slow down, or stop, we still have to pay wages, equipment rental and other overhead costs which add up over time.”
He added, “It would help if the increased cost is spread out across the various stakeholders and not just falling on one party.”
Separately, Associate Professor Lawrence Loh from National University of Singapore’s Business School said to ST that the construction industry cannot bear another situation where work come to a standstill, just like it did for two months when Singapore entered the circuit breaker period in April 2020.
“The knock-on effect on other sectors will be huge. Building and infrastructure is where economic activity starts, so if there’s a bottleneck in construction, it will hinder Singapore’s recovery efforts,” he said.
On 23 April, the SCAL said in a statement that the construction industry has been facing a “serious labour crunch” since the pandemic hit, with many construction workers leaving the country to return home. As such, SCAL said that it is “working progressively to source for manpower from countries other than India.”
The impact of the labour crunch has already caused delays in construction projects for between 9 to 12 months, said the Association. It has also caused an increase in the cost of labour and materials by 30 to 50 percent.
SCAL noted, “Without a sufficient work force, Singaporeans will have to wait longer time for their HDB flats and apartments to be completed. Other buildings in the city such as healthcare facilities, infrastructure projects will also be delayed due to this setback.”
“The repercussions are that Singaporeans will inevitably be paying for higher construction costs if the situation is not resolved soon.”
Netizens rebuke companies’ justifications for higher cost of construction, say companies greedy for profit
Upon reading this, online users expressed that construction companies should hire workers from other countries temporarily to deal with the shortage of manpower. Commenting in the Facebook page of ST, they noted that Singapore’s decision to ban travellers from India and Bangladesh is not an “excuse” for these companies to point out about delays in projects and increase in cost.
They also added that these companies should have been prepared for such situation and that there are other ways for these companies to hire workers.
Others noted that the construction sector has always been heavily dependent on foreign workers, especially those from India and Bangladesh. As such, they said it’s time for these companies to “relook that and find alternatives for their manpower crunch”.
They suggested it’s time for the companies to pay a higher wage and hire locals to do the job instead.
A couple of them noted that what is important now is to save lives and not build more buildings. As such, they said that it is better to slow down the construction projects and continue with the imposition of travel ban for those from India, Bangladesh and other countries with high number of COVID-19 cases.