Builders • Hoping for more govt help amid worker crunch

SINGAPORE – Construction companies are holding out for more government intervention to tide them over as they take another hit because of the Covid-19 entry ban on long-term pass holders from India and Bangladesh.

The beleaguered sector, which is largely reliant on Indian and Bangladeshi workers, has been struggling with a manpower shortage since the onset of the pandemic last year, as foreign workers returned to their home countries in droves.

Last Monday, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) announced three measures to help, including the temporary easing of a skills-certification rule for workers from China.

However, some contractors said it is not as simple as a one-to-one replacement, because the skill sets of workers vary from country to country.

Mr Ganessaraj Soocelaraj, group chief executive of Soilbuild Construction, said workers from China are typically skilled in areas such as bar bending, wet trade and carpentry. He said they need extra training to take on jobs typically done by Indian workers, although their skill sets tend to overlap more with those of Bangladeshi workers.

There is also the question of whether Chinese workers want to come to Singapore to work, he said, as the number of them here has been declining over the past few years.

But Mr Ganessaraj said it is still possible to attract Chinese workers to Singapore if the price is right.

“If the offered salary is high enough – and this figure varies from person to person – workers from China may be willing to leave their families back home and come to Singapore to work,” he said.

But one thing is certain: It will cost more to hire Chinese workers in the current situation, and the increased bill will have to be absorbed by contractors and developers, or trickle down to consumers.

Home buyers in Singapore are likely to face higher costs and a longer wait for their property, warned the Singapore Contractors Association the day after the ban preventing new and returning Indian workers from entering the Republic was announced.

The sector is already facing delays that have led to projects being pushed back by nine to 12 months.

The cost of labour and materials has also escalated by 30 per cent to 50 per cent, said the association.

Under the BCA measures, new work permit holders from China will not have to complete their skills certification there before arriving in Singapore, provided they meet all other entry approval and work pass requirements.

Instead, they may obtain their skills certification in Singapore. BCA said this is because some overseas training centres in China, where workers usually become certified, have not resumed operations.

This temporary scheme will last for six months from Friday.

As at last December, there were 288,700 foreigners and 116,300 Singaporeans and permanent residents (PRs) working in the construction sector, Ministry of Manpower data shows.

Last year, the foreign construction workforce shrank by 52,800.

The majority of construction workers in Singapore come from India and Bangladesh, with smaller groups from China, Myanmar and other countries.

The second measure announced by BCA will involve the public sector granting construction contracts a 49-day extension of their timelines for delays that are due to the pandemic. This is in addition to the 122 days provided in the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Act.

It means contractors have an extra five to six months to complete projects.

The measure applies to public sector construction contracts that are delayed because of the loss of productivity from Aug 7 to Dec 31 last year, and contractors do not need to apply for the additional extension.

Wee Hur Construction’s director for tender and contracts Sua Chen Shiua said he hoped the help would be extended to private projects.

“Maybe this time extension can also be granted to private projects on a mandatory basis so contractors like us can have some assurance while we… assess the full effect of the entry ban,” he said.

The third measure will involve the Government footing 0.1 per cent of the awarded contract sum for every month of delay under cost-sharing measures, to free up cash flow for contractors. This applies to eligible public sector projects with a contract sum of up to $100 million.

Associate Professor Goh Yang Miang of the National University of Singapore’s Department of Building said these stopgap measures were necessary in the short run.

He said that the current crisis might provide the necessary disruption to motivate the industry to adopt a more productive way of building. “Over the years, the industry and Government had increased investment in prefabrication, machinery, IT and other technology to reduce reliance on migrant workers, but more needs to be done,” he said.

Mr Ganessaraj said: “The industry has been trying to adopt tech and different methods of construction for the past decade. But now, it’s a no-choice situation.

“If you’ve got a smaller pool of workers and limited resources on hand, you want to get it right the first time and don’t want to waste time doing it again.”

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