As Singapore continues to experience shortage of manpower caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, key representatives from construction firms and built environment industry are requesting for the Government to permit foreign workers to enter Singapore in a safe and controlled manner.
According to a statement issued on Monday (17 May) by the Construction Industry Joint Committee, it noted that although the industry supports the Government’s initiative to tackle the resurgence of COVID-19 following the emergence of new virus variants in Singapore, manpower challenges will continue to worsen if borders are remained close for a prolonged period.
“The complexity and nature of construction work necessitates the deployment of workers from various trades, and the current reduced workforce is already working at maximum capacity, increasing the risks of workplace incidents,” said the Committee, which comprises of The Institution of Engineers, Singapore, the Real Estate Developers’ Association of Singapore and the Singapore Contractors Association, among others.
It added, “We are suffering from reduced productivity due to safe management measures at worksites and many of our migrant workers plan to return home when their work permits expire.”
Other members of the committee include the Association of Consulting Engineers Singapore, the Singapore Green Building Council, the Singapore Institute of Architects, the Singapore Institute of Building, the Singapore Institute of Surveyors and Valuers, and the Society of Project Managers.
Additionally, the Committee also cautioned that home buyers waiting for their HDB and private property may have to wait even longer for their properties to be ready.
“Public infrastructure projects such as hospitals, MRT and schools and industrial developments which are vital to the nation’s economy and people’s lives would be badly disrupted. Maintenance works would also be stalled,” it said.
Earlier this month, construction companies have stated that entry ban for travellers from India can lead to higher construction costs and delay in projects.
Given that most construction workers come from countries like India and Bangladesh, 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 such as China and Myanmar to look for alternative manpower, which can be costly due to the increased demand.
In Monday’s statement, the Committee also pointed out that for built environment industry, which consists of more than 18,000 companies and hiring tens of thousands of Singaporeans, jobs could be at stake if the industry is further impacted.
When workers leave the country, new workers are required to take over their positions in order for the projects to be completed.
“While we need to maintain tight border control measures to protect Singaporeans, we urge the Government to adopt a balanced approach and work with industry to allow the recruitment and inflow of foreign manpower. We are prepared to work with the relevant agencies and stakeholders to establish a viable end-to-end system to bring in migrant workers in a safe and controlled manner so as to enable work to continue, while keeping Singaporeans safe,” said the Committee.
It continued, “The industry also hopes that the Government will consider additional relief measures to help all stakeholders in the built environment sector to cope with the increased challenges as a result of the tightened border measures.”
The Committee also expressed that the industry is also going all out to speed up the adoption of labour-efficient construction methods like prefabrication initiatives, embracing technology to reach higher productivity as well as redesign processes and upskill the workforce in order to create good jobs for Singaporeans.
MPs call for move to improve jobs to encourage local uptake
Workers’ Party (WP) Member of Parliament (MP) for Sengkang GRC Jamus Lim had earlier called for a move that Singapore desperately needs in order to raise productivity in the construction sector.
“It is well known that for all the productivity challenges that we have faced in our economy, the construction sector has been even worse off,” said Assoc Prof Lim in Parliament last Tuesday (11 May).
He noted that the justifications for the concerning productivity level have been varied – from purported lower scale of workers, especially related to the large transient foreign worker pool, to inadequate project planning and mechanization.
Assoc Prof Lim then highlighted the “one common theme” that runs through the aforementioned explanations.
“With steady access to a large pool of foreign construction workers, most paid at very low wages, it is unsurprising that firms rationally choose to substitute capital for labour, and skilled workers for unskilled ones,” he explained.
Assoc Prof Lim asserted that “this would go on for as long as it’s cheaper to bring in two or three low-cost workers to do the job of one higher skilled, but undeniably more costly, worker”.
“This practice is ultimately to the detriment of more than just productivity per se,” he added.
In response, Minister for National Development Desmond Lee said that he agrees with Assoc Prof Lim to an extent, though he noted that the Government “can go a lot more further than that”.
Mr Lee stated that the construction sector has been undergoing transformation with significant investments since the launch of its Industry Transformation Map (ITM) in 2017.
Touching on the improvement of productivity in the sector, Mr Lee stated that improvements have been made as a result of many efforts over the years. This can be seen from the “regulatory, landsale related, skills upgrading, [and] grants”.
“All these are efforts to transform our sector. But because the construction sector is a long-value chain, it does take time; it does take resolve; and no one firm can do it on its own,” he remarked.
In a follow-up question, Assoc Prof Lim asked what is the timeline for which Singaporeans can expect an actual change in raising the wages for construction workers.
This came after he pointed out that there seems to be a “severe reluctance” from the Government to even entertain a small escalation in the transportation cost for construction workers.
Mr Lee replied saying that the Government is looking at “making significant changes” to the foreign manpower strategy for the construction sector “starting from next year”.
This include doing away with the Man-Year Entitlement (MYE) framework so as to provide opportunities for Singaporeans to come into the sector.
“And not just raise the wages of the foreign workers. But even those foreign workers working offsite, [they] will have to be more skilled [to] operate the machineries; and therefore the wages will have to be higher, because they are more productive and more skilled,” he added.