Manpower issues pose biggest roadblocks for construction firms seeking to resume business amid Covid-19 pandemic

A worker conducts maintenance work at the construction site of Kim Keat Beacon on June 1, 2020.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

While many in the construction sector are eager to resume business, they say manpower issues remain one of the biggest roadblocks – with firms reporting that it is difficult meeting the stringent requirements needed to get workers cleared to return to work.

With some 300,000 workers in the sector, the task of getting them back to work, keeping them and the community at large safe, and keeping outbreaks at bay is a mammoth one.

The Singapore Contractors Association Limited (Scal) told The Straits Times: “The problems arise with the clearance system and processes, while many (workers) are still stuck in dormitories for various other reasons.”

The authorities told ST yesterday that they are working with the sector to ensure work resumes smoothly and safely, and will review some rules where necessary.

GETTING BACK TO WORK

Although Singapore is on target to clear all dorms except for some blocks reserved as quarantine facilities by next Friday, this does not mean all workers in these dorms can resume work.

A Ministry of Manpower spokesman said yesterday that agencies such as the Building and Construction Authority (BCA), the Economic Development Board and Enterprise Singapore are following up with companies, especially contractors, on how they can do so.

Many of the required measures needed to curb the spread of the coronavirus have led to delays, several firms of various sizes told ST.

Mr Kenneth Loo, executive director of Straits Construction, said only 5 per cent to 10 per cent of his workers have been cleared at some sites, despite all efforts to put in place safe distancing and other precautions.

Mr Hooi Yu Koh, chairman and chief executive of Kori Holdings, a specialist in steelwork, pointed out that some workers were homesick and wanted to return home, but travel restrictions ruled out getting new workers into the country, adding to the manpower crunch.

About a quarter of his 200 workers have been cleared.

MOM stressed that measures were in place to help to ensure a safe and controlled restart of work. “As employers and workers prepare to resume work safely, it is important that we remain vigilant and aware of the global Covid-19 situation,” it said.

SEGREGATING WORKERS

Scal said construction firms are required to make arrangements to reduce the risk of virus transmission between workers at different sites. Workers must therefore be housed separately according to their construction site, to reduce mixing, and jobs must be scheduled to keep groups segregated.

“However smaller contractors may not have enough workers to have the flexibility for such arrangements,” said the Scal spokesman.

Mr Roger Heng’s firm, LSK Engineering, is an electrical engineering sub-contractor with about 60 workers, of which 15 per cent have been cleared to work.

Apart from critical mass, Mr Heng said that construction sites also need workers with different skills. But work remains stalled at some sites because those who have been cleared may not have specific skills, he explained.

Mr Loo said housing his workers in a range of accommodation, including construction temporary quarters (CTQs) at the worksite itself, has helped him to meet cohorting requirements.

“But it is still a challenge. If your worksite has no space, or if it is in a built-up environment, then you can’t build CTQs,” he noted.

A BCA spokesman told ST yesterday that it is looking at ways to further review the requirements, “factoring in the feedback from industry”.

BCA said it has been engaging associations such as Scal, the Specialist Trade Alliance of Singapore and the Dormitory Association of Singapore to help employers “cohort” workers staying in purpose-built dormitories.

Mr Hooi also had concerns that time spent on mandatory swab testing for construction workers at 14-day intervals – a critical measure to mitigate outbreaks – will create bottlenecks. A new online system has been created to hopefully ease the process.

From today, BCA said, employers can make appointments for these periodic swab tests online with the Health Promotion Board.

MOM said that measures such as cohorting and regular testing help to ensure a safe and controlled restart of work.

“This will minimise the risk of a resurgence of infections, and safeguard the health of workers and our community at large. We seek the understanding of employers in this regard,” it added.

ACCESSCODE ISSUES

Contractors have also raised issues with MOM’s AccessCode, which gives “green” status to workers allowed back to work.

Mr Loo, who has more than 300 migrant workers, was one of several in the industry who had problems with the system, with workers’ statuses switching erratically.

On Thursday, MOM said it was notified by some employers that their workers’ status had unexpectedly turned “red”, which means they cannot work.

The issue was resolved in an hour. Yesterday, an MOM spokesman said the ministry recognises that “the multiple conditions which determine the AccessCode status pose a challenge for employers and workers”.

“We understand the challenges faced by all parties, and are working towards simplifying the conditions, making information more accessible and enhancing user experience,” said the spokesman.

From July 12, for example, MOM introduced new features for employers to check AccessCode details through an online service, Safe @ Work, while workers can use the SGWorkPass app. MOM also removed a previous “grey” status to make the codes simpler.

But the ministry also said employers, operators and workers need to do their part by providing accurate data for AccessCode, which is critical for it to run smoothly even as enhancements are made.

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