Construction companies face labor issues despite borders reopening, leaving projects on the move

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SINGAPORE — More construction workers are returning to Singapore following the easing of Covid-19 border restrictions, but many are also heading home at the same time for their first visit in two years, according to construction companies.

This has left the industry in a state of flux as projects arrive at a rapid pace.

But even with the arrival of new workers, construction companies told TODAY these workers tend to be unskilled and need to be trained first, and most cannot immediately contribute to ongoing projects.

Onboarding these new workers also comes at a higher cost than before the pandemic, for administrative matters such as stay-at-home notices and pre-departure Covid-19 testing, the companies said.

The construction sector has been hit hard by a labor shortage during the pandemic, due to the restricted flow of migrant workers to Singapore.

This led to delays in completing projects, as well as companies having to increase their quotes as labor costs rose due to lower supply.

On May 9, Labor Minister Tan See Leng told parliament that the labor shortages that have plagued some sectors are likely to ease in the coming months with the arrival of more than foreign workers in Singapore as borders reopen.

“The government has taken steps to resume the influx of foreign workers to ease labor shortages, and we have gradually lifted border restrictions since late last year,” he said. -he declares.

To manage the risk of imported cases of Covid-19 at the start of the pandemic, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) had required in March 2020 that all new and existing work permit holders planning to enter Singapore obtain entry clearances before arriving here.

Businesses and workers previously told TODAY that during the pandemic such approvals were not guaranteed and some work permit holders had to wait weeks before they could enter Singapore. This led to a labor shortage at the time.

The entry permit requirement has since been gradually relaxed.

In February, it was removed for all fully vaccinated long-term pass holders, but not for work permit holders.

Then, from May 1, MOM removed the requirement for all fully vaccinated non-Malaysian work permit holders holding approval in principle in the construction, shipyard and processing sectors.

All vaccinated Malaysian work permit holders could enter Singapore since December last year through the vaccinated travel route between the two countries at that time, before land borders opened for fully vaccinated travelers between the two countries on April 1.

MORE WORKERS LEAVING TO VISIT AT HOME

Mr Akbar Kader, managing director of Nan Guan Construction, said that while removing the entry approval requirement meant he could hire more workers, it also meant that many of them now wanted to return. in their country of origin to see their family.

For many of them, they had not been able to go home for the past two years because they feared that they would not be able to return immediately due to the entry clearance requirement at that time. .

He said about 20% of his foreign workforce – largely made up of Bangladeshi and Indian workers – intended to return to their home countries for visits.

It is looking to bring in around 20% more workers to rebuild its workforce to pre-Covid levels, and is still doing so given the recently eased measures.

But even though the workforce has returned to pre-pandemic levels, there is a lot more work to be done than before, he said.

“Now we still feel the pinch…it’s a double whammy (with) the backlog of projects, the second is the large number of projects coming to market due to pent-up demand,” he said. declared. “We hope that in about six months things will stabilize.”

Agree, Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer Kenneth Loo of Straits Construction said that while Labor Minister Tan said the number of foreign workers had almost returned to levels of ‘Before Covid, the ‘benchmark’ changed due to time wasted on many construction projects.

“There are new jobs (inflows), as well as projects that were never completed, so the (labour) needs are much greater,” Loo said. “Because some of the older workers who are maybe more skilled (have) gone back, and there may be (skills) gaps that need to be filled.”

And while new workers are coming, companies say they may not be as skilled and so will take time to train.

Mr Nelson Tee, managing director of CHH Construction System, said that, like Mr Akbar, he saw around eight to nine of his more than 30 workers leave for his home when entry permits were removed. During the same period, he hired six new workers.

“The situation has improved, but the new workers are beginners and less experienced, so we have to send them for training,” he said. “So during this period, skilled people are coming back and new ones are coming in, so productivity and production will still be affected.”

THE COST OF BRINGING WORKERS INCREASED

The rising cost of bringing these workers to Singapore has also caused headaches for businesses, employers said TODAY.

Adf Construction Manager Foong Yu Han said that in the days when entry approvals still had to be sought to bring in workers, the cost of onboarding a new worker could cost up to S$3,000, as the worker would have to serve a 14-day quarantine. , and pass several Covid-19 tests. These were additional costs that the employer had to pay.

Since March of this year, the process of hiring a worker has been streamlined into a shorter two-day pre-departure program. However, according to a government circular on this new scheme, companies still had to pay between S$890 and S$1,800 to onboard a new worker, with the cost of their flights included.

The cost includes a two-day stay at a dedicated facility in the worker’s home country, a pre-departure Covid-19 test and a three-day stay notice upon arrival in Singapore.

Ms Foong estimates she must pay at least S$1,400 per worker under the scheme, which is still far more expensive than before the pandemic, when employers did not have to bear these costs.

“Before Covid-19, workers could just go straight to Singapore as long as the approval in principle was met,” she said.

She added that the burden of these costs is entirely borne by the employer and that they cannot be compensated if a worker decides to terminate his contract prematurely.

This poses a problem for construction companies, as some of the new workers will be tasked with completing unfinished projects from before the pandemic, for which quotes have already been agreed.

“These are additional costs to some projects that we accepted two years ago,” she said. “We are trying to use our existing workers to complete (accepted) projects before Covid-19.”

She said if there was no other option, she would have to use the new, more expensive labor to complete these projects. The silver lining is that there are co-pay options that agencies such as the Housing and Development Board offer to help cover those additional costs, she said.

Mr Loo of Straits Construction said these additional “integration costs” are just one of the few growing costs the industry faces.

“The other cost that the industry is more concerned about is rising labor costs,” Loo said. “The (higher integration cost) is just one of many rising costs.”

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