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New border limits for India: S'pore construction firms relying heavily on foreign workers dealt another blow

SINGAPORE — After 40 per cent of his skilled workers left Singapore to return to their home countries during the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Yee Sern Wei had to deal with the rising labour and material cost as well as delays in construction projects. Now, the 40-year-old is hit by another blow when Singapore tightened border restrictions for travellers from India this week, limiting the inflow of construction workers here. Twenty per cent of his workforce is made up of Indian nationals.

New border limits for India: S'pore construction firms relying heavily on foreign workers dealt another blow
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  • Singapore tightened border restrictions for travellers from India this week
  • This will limit the inflow of construction workers here
  • Construction firms said Indian nationals make up between 20 and 40 per cent of their workforce
  • The Singapore Contractors Association said the ongoing labour crunch has already caused projects to be pushed back by up to 12 months
  • It also escalated the cost of labour and materials by 30 to 50 per cent

 

SINGAPORE — After 40 per cent of his skilled workers left Singapore to return to their home countries during the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Yee Sern Wei had to deal with the rising labour and material cost as well as delays in construction projects.

Now, the 40-year-old is hit by another blow when Singapore tightened border restrictions for travellers from India this week, limiting the inflow of construction workers here. Twenty per cent of his workforce is made up of Indian nationals.

Mr Yee’s firm is among the many construction companies here affected by the latest restriction imposed by the Government’s Covid-19 multi-ministry task force on Thursday (April 22) to curb the spread of the outbreak out.

From April 24, Singapore will be barring entry for all long-term pass holders such as those with a work pass, S pass and work permit, as well as short-term visit pass holders who have recent travel history to India. This includes people who have already secured approval to come here and those planning to transit through the country.

The new regulations came two days after the Government cut entry approvals for travellers who are not Singapore citizens or permanent residents, in light of a worsening situation in India and the emergence of new variants of the coronavirus.

India has reported the world’s highest daily tally of coronavirus cases for the second day on Friday, surpassing 330,000 new cases, with reports of its health services under severe strain.

The Singapore Contractors Association said that the construction industry has been facing a serious labour crunch since the Covid-19 pandemic started last year.

This has already caused projects to be pushed back by up to 12 months and escalated the cost of labour and materials by 30 to 50 per cent.

Some companies may also be forced to close, which will adversely affect some 100,000 Singaporeans working in the construction sector, the association added in a media statement on Friday.

“The construction industry needs migrant workers as they form the backbone of the labour force, and the majority of these workers are from India and Bangladesh. We need to bring workers in because no Singaporeans are willing to work as construction workers.”

The association stressed that without a sufficient workforce, Singaporeans will have to wait longer and pay higher costs for their housing projects to be completed.

Other buildings in the city such as healthcare facilities and infrastructure projects will also be delayed.

Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the Government’s task force, on Thursday acknowledged that the new restrictions will have an impact on construction projects

He said that the Government is looking at how it can provide more support for contractors and small- and medium-sized enterprises that will be hurt by the new restrictions.

These support measures are being worked out and will be announced when ready, he added.

NOT JUMPING INTO NEW PROJECTS

Construction firms that spoke to TODAY, still reeling from the impact of the pandemic, are bracing themselves for another long haul ahead.

For a majority of the firms, Indian nationals make up between 20 and 40 per cent of their workforce.

Mr Yee said that this has caused his firm to be more cautious when bidding for new projects.

“The existing project is already facing delays due to the labour crunch. A new upcoming project will add to the list and might create a snowball effect,” he added.

Agreeing, Mr Nick Tay, 24, director of Hiap Huat Demolition Contractors, said that with work held up, his company has suffered a loss of about 60 per cent so far.

“There have been so many delays to our projects. We can’t take in bigger projects because of the shortage of manpower. On top of that, we can’t raise our pricing (as the contracts have been signed).”

With construction workers in high demand, firms have also seen more workers demanding higher pay and competitors “poaching” highly skilled ones.

Ms Foong Yu Han, 29, project manager at Foong Ah Weng Construction, whose firm is trying to complete a backlog of projects that it was awarded in 2019, said she has seen workers asking for a 10 per cent raise in pay.

"But if you raise the pay for one worker, you need to raise for all. If you don't, then they become unhappy and there will be more problems."

Mr Richard Yea, 44, chief executive officer of interior design firm Design 4 Space, said that he had no choice but to meet the workers’ demands in order to persuade them to stay.

It did not help that some of the workers are among the more than 1,000 residents from Westlite Woodlands dormitory who had been rounded up to be isolated at government quarantine facilities for 14 days, following a cluster of Covid-19 cases found there.

Mr Yea said: “If I don’t pay more and my workers get poached, the projects will either be stuck or delayed. Moving forward, I think they will demand an even higher pay. It’s a headache.”

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Covid-19 India construction foreign workers travel

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