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Singapore

Companies seek alternatives as workers from India, Bangladesh dwindle

Companies seek alternatives as workers from India, Bangladesh dwindle

Workers at a construction site in Singapore on Sep 28, 2020. (File photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

SINGAPORE: Companies that have traditionally relied on migrant workers from India and Bangladesh are now looking further afield for labour, several firms told CNA.

However, they also said that they are just starting to explore the options, and to expect project delays and disruptions for the time being.

From May 2, Singapore barred entry or transit for visitors with recent travel history to Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. 

This travel ban, which includes long-term pass holders, came amid a series of moves to tighten Singapore borders as the COVID-19 outbreak in India worsens and Singapore clocked more local coronavirus cases in recent weeks.

READ: Singapore to bar visitors from Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka

READ: India sees record COVID-19 deaths, new cases in 24 hours

Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the COVID-19 multi-ministry task force, had acknowledged that this will have an impact on industries such as construction, and that many small- and medium-sized enterprises in Singapore and contractors will be affected.

The Building and Construction Authority on Apr 26 said that it will grant more flexibility for firms to bring in workers from China, among other support measures. 

But companies told CNA that this will not make up the shortfall.

SHORTAGE OF WORKERS SINCE LAST YEAR

A manager in the construction industry, who only wanted to be know as Alan, said that the cost of hiring workers from China will "shoot up" as demand increases.

"As it is, the daily rate for a Chinese worker is about S$200 to S$300 per day. With this move, don't be surprised that the cost will go up 30 per cent to 40 per cent more for each worker," he said.

"However, I also think many companies will hold back on hiring more Chinese workers, as they don't have the budget to. And this will lead to more project delays."

This daily rate includes costs such as housing, levies and insurance for the worker, which the company has to pay. The daily rate for workers from India or Bangladesh is about S$120 to S$150 now, up from S$70 to S$80 in the past.

READ: India's neighbours close borders over surge in COVID-19 cases

Mr Kenneth Loo, COO of Straits Construction, said that the situation is "very tight", and manpower was short before the travel restrictions kicked in. He estimates that there is a 30 to 40 per cent shortage of workers currently.

"There was a net decrease of workers from the system practically the whole of last year ... now with the stoppage from India, that makes the whole scenario even more challenging," he said.

He added that while workers from China can fill some gaps, fewer are willing to come to Singapore as economic opportunities in China improve.

"I think we have no choice, we are still looking," he said in response to a question on whether they are sourcing for workers from other countries.

The Singapore Contractors Association Limited (SCAL) said on Apr 23 that the labour crunch has already caused delay of construction projects for nine to 12 months, while the cost of labour and materials has escalated by 30 per cent to 50 per cent. 

"Some companies may be forced to close and it will adversely impact about 100,000 residents working in the construction sector," said the association, adding that there will be project delays.

Ms Christine Sun, OrangeTee senior vice president of research & analytics, said that the shortage is likely to be in the short to mid-term. 

"The situation may start to stabilise when more people are being vaccinated and travel restrictions are eased again," she said. "Some affected homeowners may need to adjust their wedding or family planning."

LANDSCAPE INDUSTRY AFFECTED

Companies in the landscape industry also said that they face a lack of workers, with some telling CNA that they have had to turn down projects.

Mr Julian Shi of Nature Landscapes said that they have had migrant workers resign or return on leave in the past months but have had difficulty replacing them. The company is now trying to hire about 20 to 40 foreign workers. 

"We are not looking at alternatives for the time being. Our present solution is to adapt with the limitation in resources. We are working with service buyers to extend project timelines," he said.

Mr Edmund Toh, managing director of ET Landscape and Services said that the company has been trying to hire foreign workers since December. They initially tried to get workers from Myanmar but the coup in February put a stop to that. They are now trying to get workers from Vietnam. 

READ: Singapore returns to tighter COVID-19 measures: What's allowed under the new rules?

Last week, the Landscape Industry Association (Singapore) sent out a notice to service buyers to say that it supports the tighter border controls and appealed to them to postpone non-essential work so that their workers will not "burnout".

Chairman Goh Eng Lam said that their companies will be working with the Ministry of Manpower and other agencies to seek other sources of foreign manpower.

Workers from India and Bangladesh do essential work such as grass cutting and tree works, he said. He thinks there will be a 15 to 20 per cent shortage of workers in the coming months.

MIND WORKERS' HEALTH

Assistant Professor Laavanya Kathiravelu from Nanyang Technological University’s School of Social Sciences, whose work has centred around migrant labour from South Asia, said that a few other industries might be affected. These include the F&B industry, shipyard and manufacturing industries, as well as companies that engage in repairs and maintenance work. 

"These are all areas of our economy that rely heavily on South Asian migrant labour," she said. 

She said that migrant workers who are still working in Singapore are being expected to take on heavier workloads and longer working hours as a result of this labour shortage. 

"This has caused issues of overwork among some of the population. This, in turn, may lead to deteriorating mental health as well as increasing the desire to return to the home country as a result of being unable to handle increased demands by employers," she added. 

Mr Goh also warned against "overloading" landscape workers, asking service buyers to consider the workers' personal and mental health.

"We cannot take things for granted (and think) that they are superman," he said. "If they do not have enough rest or fall sick, it's going to make matters worse."

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Source: CNA/hm(rw)

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