By Anisa Pinatih
Migrant workers isolated in crowded dormitories rampaged by the coronavirus accounted for the majority of infections in Singapore. During the circuit breaker period, much attention was drawn to the inequalities because they had to live in crammed rooms with 12 to 20 fellow workers. In response to this, the government then made a pledge to improve the conditions by building new dormitories. This commentary references the migrant worker situation in Singapore as a case study, but the recommendations could be generalised to assist decision-making among employers, governments, contractors and other relevant stakeholders in other settings, involving migrant or local workers alike.
UNCERTAINTY AMIDST RECOVERY
As lockdowns ease, the question is if jobs are available and if returning to work is safe. There are plenty of jobs available in normal situations, but the recession caused by COVID-19 has changed the landscape and some of the migrant workers might face a permanent termination.
The Star claims that migrants’ biggest worry is their debts to the recruitment agents, which could amount to more than a year of their basic salary (S$7,000 to S$10,000). Converted to their home country’s currency, this debt may become a real burden for them and their families.
This might be the major reason why returning home is not an option and many stay despite the uncertainty. But how uncertain is such uncertainty? Singapore has been relying on foreign workers for its construction ground work. Around 293,000 foreigners are employed to fill such positions, with the majority of coming from neighbouring Asian countries such as Bangladesh, India and Myanmar (Statista, June 2020).
A quick look at the status quo shows that a low percentage of migrant workers have experienced job termination during the pandemic (International Labour Organisation, 2020). These workers are from Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Vietnam) working in countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong, in different sectors such as manufacturing. During the pandemic, 89 per cent of them were still employed. Among returnees, 47 per cent reported that they left jobs because they chose to; 24 per cent had a contract that was due to end; and 16 per cent reported that employers prematurely ended their contract.
Also read: The Hardest Hit by COVID-19
OFFERING JOBS TO THE LOCAL
Offering local workers construction work might not be much of an option because the level of interest among Singaporeans to take up such jobs is low. Channel News Asia reported that this is because many locals perceive a lack of recognition and career progression in construction work, as well as the nature of the job being labour intensive and dangerous.
Recently, there has been a discussion whether the reliance on lower-cost foreign workers should be evaluated, but then trade bodies and associations in Singapore released a joint statement declaring that the economy will suffer without foreign workers.
In addition, Singapore’s small domestic population means it is increasingly tougher to find manpower who will take up these roles; and this is not only in construction but also other sectors. The proportion of the foreign workforce relative to total employment is about 78 per cent in construction to about 56 per cent in manufacturing, and around 30 per cent in services.
RELIANCE ON TECHNOLOGY
Some may believe that the current crisis is a reminder that certain industries like construction need to evolve with technology and skills, rather than manpower. However, there are limitations; for example, in prefabricated prefinished volumetric construction or precast concrete, the way contracts are commissioned makes it difficult to go fully automated.
Architects and developers usually decide what a design should look like and dictate the delivery process. Oftentimes, each design has a different requirement, so the components contractors manufacture will differ from building to building.
Besides, implementing new technology entails the demand of changing mindsets. Challenges will inevitably occur and this could be a disruption some may not be ready to take up. Reliance on technology to manage and complete building projects also needs a security plan. Not only does this require a specific expertise, but also robust budgeting. None of this is a problem for big corporations, but small- to medium-sized businesses might see it differently.
The CEO of Building and Construction Authority (BCA), Hugh Lim, mentioned at the BCA-REDAS Seminar in January 2020 that by the end of 2019, there were 35 public and private sector projects piloting Integrated Digital Delivery (IDD). The target in 2020 is piloting 40 to 60 IDD projects and building up IDD capabilities in 150 to 180 firms. IDD uses a collaborative 3D modelling technology (BIM), advanced infocomm and smart technologies. Although the number of projects and firms using IDD is increasing, full automaton across different scales of enterprises will take time.
Therefore, no matter how much technology aids construction, it is unlikely to fully replace manual labour. Certain constructions may not allow for automation yet, for example in housing, where the cost of doing so might be too high.
As such, manpower demands will remain high in the construction, and it is unlikely that migrant workers’ contracts will be abruptly terminated. In present times, attention should be directed to finding a way to protect construction workers and to make transition phases to the new normal easier.
GOVERNMENTAL MITIGATIONS IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
In addition to public health, economic and social disruptions have also put the long-term livelihoods and well-being of construction workers at risk. Aside from various fiscal policies, tax incentives, social protection schemes, etc., the governments in Southeast Asia have extended their plans to protect migrant workers as well.
The Malaysia government urged all contractors in Kuala Lumpur Federal Territory and Putrajaya, and Selangor to send their foreign workers to get free COVID-19 tests. The Singapore government called for COVID-safe training and issued COVID-safe worksite requirements, as well as improve the migrant workers dormitories.
What could be looked into further is extending legal assistance or coverage, as well as a range of additional measures, such as adapting labour inspection mechanisms to the construction sector, and informing workers and employers about the importance of social protection, existing schemes and how to access them.
GOOD POLICIES TO PROTECT CONSTRUCTION WORKERS
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) published a study on good policies in Middle East, where construction makes up the majority of the labour market. The workers that toil on building the cities consist of low-skilled migrant workers from Asia and Africa. They benefit from opportunities to earn income that offers the chance of improved livelihoods for themselves and their families. This is almost similar to the situation in say Singapore and Malaysia. Reviewing good practices (such as the one mentioned above) could make for more informed decision-making; and below are several recommendations:
Improving contracts and wage protection systems
Protection systems could include a mechanism for regular checks, penalty for non-payment, and establishing a source of funds to pay wages if the employer is genuinely unable to pay. A Project Bank Account (PBA), for example—a ring-fenced account set up at the start of a project—can speed up payment and protect parties in lower tiers against insolvency and lend possibilities of making payment from the account directly to the workers. Meanwhile, improving contracts could include banning ‘pay when paid’ clauses, developing joint liability schemes between clients and principal contractors to protect workers against late or non-payment, and providing dispute mediation.
Extending legislation for Occupational Safety and Health (OSH)
A principal contractor and the immediate employer can be made jointly liable for OSH. The legislation can also be arranged in such a way that places ultimate responsibility on the client for OSH, including the provision of welfare facilities on construction sites and establishment of OSH committees, with worker representatives.
Setting up an executive body dedicated to improving OSH
The OSH executive body should include a trained inspectorate dedicated to OSH with the authorities to inspect all sites through random and unannounced visits, and to fine and prosecute companies held liable, which could include a principal contractor and client as well as an immediate employer. The executive body must be qualified to advise and instruct employers on compliance with OSH regulations, and to collect and publish data on accidents and near misses, occupational injuries and diseases.
Construction workers were the hardest hit by COVID-19, especially the migrants. Not only were they more vulnerable to infections due to poor living conditions, but are also prone to greater uncertainty as containment measures ease. In case of insolvency due to recessions, they might also be the ones left without financial protection. The COVID-19 outbreak has put this group of workers, already easily affected by economic, social and political situations, at an even greater risk than before. Limited access to resources could leave them exposed to certain exploitations, and hurt the efficiency, as well as good reputation of the construction industry. Protecting them in the new normal, therefore, is paramount.
In the case of Southeast Asia, the demands for migrant construction workers may not see a diminishing trend as they play a crucial role and make significant contributions to the industry. Relevant policies and practices to protect construction workers in the reopening of the economies should include at least timely payment of wages, as well as safe and healthy working conditions.
– Construction+ Online
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