How fewer foreign workers mean challenges beyond the construction sector

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With COVID-19 travel restrictions limiting the number of foreign workers coming to Singapore, CNA examines how this has implications for sectors other than construction and what a longer-term solution might be.

Rubbish at Tampines North

Black garbage bags thrown at a public rubbish chute area at a Housing Board block in Tampines North. (Photo: Chew Hui Min)



SINGAPORE: The mynahs pecking at scattered rice grains from open garbage bags were startled and flew away when the lift door opened.

Open food packets and fried fish heads strewn around the public rubbish chute area were the first things someone stepping out of the lift would see at this Housing Board block in Tampines North.

Residents told CNA that it is a problem they have lived with for a few years now, although the issue of cleanliness at the ward was only recently highlighted in Member of Parliament Baey Yam Keng’s (Tampines GRC-PAP) social media posts.

Mr Baey said on Facebook last weekend (May 28) that about 60 per cent of the new Tampines North cleaning contractor’s migrant workers could not enter Singapore to start work due to tighter border restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The cleaning contractor is therefore facing severe manpower shortage and operational challenges,” Mr Baey wrote. “The 40 per cent migrant cleaner staff strength are doing their best to keep our common areas clean.” 

A few things have compounded the problem, said Mr Baey. Residents staying at home more have been chucking more garbage, and COVID-19 safety measures mean that cleaners have to disinfect common areas like lifts, playgrounds and fitness corners more frequently.

Appealing to residents, Mr Baey said: “We are facing manpower shortage coupled with additional workload. Therefore, we seek your understanding for any lapses in cleaning your estate. The cleanliness of public areas is also a shared responsibility. We appeal for residents’ cooperation not to litter.”

When CNA visited the block along Tampines Avenue 9, residents said that they do see cleaners coming to clean the common areas – sometimes a few times a day.

Mr Goh Joo Meng, 51, said that even after the chute area has been cleaned, bags of rubbish that should be thrown into the rubbish chute or larger bags that should be taken to the dump downstairs would appear again.

He takes matters into his own hands by either informing the cleaner to come to clear it, or cleaning it himself. He’s not the only resident who does so.

Ms Razianah Ramzan, 36, said that her husband also cleans the chute area often, and one of her neighbours would wash the common area almost daily.

“I’m upset because they are not responsible about their rubbish … and it makes it difficult for the rest of us,” she said, adding that the rubbish attracts ants, cockroaches and other pests.

ADJUSTING EXPECTATIONS

The situation in Tampines and elsewhere highlights how the shortage of foreign workers is having an impact beyond the construction industry.

Four other town councils responded to CNA’s queries about how manpower shortages arising from a lack of foreign workers are impacting the provision of essential services. MP Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Panjang – PAP) said that the situation has resulted in challenges for contractors.

“But by and large, the contractors are able to carry out their work with the mix of workers,” said Mr Liang, who is the chairman of the GRC’s town council.

Nee Soon Town Council said that while routine works were affected in the second quarter of last year, they have gradually restarted. Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten-PAP), chairman of Marine Parade Town Council, said that cleaners there are “stretched”, for the same reasons raised by Mr Baey.

Meanwhile, Ang Mo Kio Town Council has seen delays in completing some projects due to various factors such as delays in the shipment of materials, the lack of manpower amd the implementation of and the need to comply with safety management measures. 

“With the recent resurgence of COVID-19,  we continue to prioritise critical and urgent works that affect public hygiene and the safety of the residents,” said a spokesperson. “We reschedule our cleaning timetables, redeploy and optimise the limited resources to align with the current environmental needs.”

While estates in Singapore seem so far to have generally been able to keep on top of cleanliness and maintenance amid the shortage of manpower, companies and experts said that people may have to adjust their expectations as there is much uncertainty due to COVID-19 and there is no end in sight for the foreign manpower crunch.

Visitors with travel history to India have been barred from Singapore since Apr 23, and Singapore authorities extended the travel restrictions to visitors from Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka from May 2. 

From May 7, Singapore stopped accepting new entry applications for work pass holders from higher-risk countries and regions, except for workers needed for key strategic projects and infrastructural works.

With tightened border restrictions, firms are unable to replace the workers who return home when their contracts expire, or for personal reasons such as to get married or to take care of their family members. Workers that were approved to enter have also had their arrival dates rescheduled.

MANPOWER CRUNCH, HIGHER COSTS

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the situation is highly uncertain and the limits on foreign workers coming to Singapore could be a reality the country has to deal with for some time.

The woes of the construction industry have been widely reported, but CNA found that cleaning firms, landscape companies and firms doing building maintenance are also facing manpower constraints.

Mr Raymund Ooi of landscape and construction company Limelite Productions said that they had plans to hire up to 20 more workers. A number of the workers were approved to enter but their arrivals have been delayed by as long as three months. Other firms that CNA spoke to are in a similar situation.

Many of these companies hire work permit holders from India and Bangladesh. While some are considering workers from other countries, their pay is generally higher than those from the two South Asian countries. 

And there may be other challenges.

Two companies said that they hesitate to hire workers from other countries as they may not be able to communicate with the existing workers from India and Bangladesh.

With these barriers, the salaries of workers already in Singapore have risen as companies pay more to retain them, or to poach them from other companies.

Mr Jack Oei of Success Forever, a building maintenance company that counts several town councils and government agencies among its clients, said that he has tried asking about construction workers from China or Thailand, but they are unwilling to come to Singapore to work as their pay in their home countries can be comparable to what would be on offer here.

Over the last year, he has upped his existing workers’ salaries by about 30 per cent, and they’re likely to stay elevated even after the pandemic, he said. 

And it’s not just workers from South Asia. The daily pay of skilled tilers from Malaysia has risen from about S$120 to S$150 a day to around S$250 to S$300 a day, said Mr Oei.

Even at that rate, they are hard to come by and he had to hire another company to complete the tiling for a hawker centre upgrading project, at twice the amount he would normally have spent. 

This is an example of how a “break in the chain” – a lack of skilled workers, or shortage of supplies – can delay a project or raise costs significantly, he said. The upshot is that costs have risen, and are likely to be passed on.

“I have to adjust the tender price to the current market situation,” he said. 

“And also the material price from this pandemic, we foresee that it will go up again … I’ve noticed that current tender prices have already gone up, compared to pre-COVID.”

Some companies have adapted by hiring more Singaporeans, but a few also told CNA that their productivity tends to be lower, and they need two or three Singaporeans to do the work of one foreign worker.

Mr Bernie Low, general manager of Prince’s Landscape, said that they are coping by “re-organising and optimising” existing resources, and hiring more locals, including fresh graduates, mid-career switchers, former convicts, people with disabilities and senior citizens.

“We are expecting the restrictions to be prolonged in light of recent developments relating to the pandemic,” said Mr Low. 

“Long-term implications will be project delays, cost of manpower will be higher and part of these cost increases will be passed on to customers.”

A few firms also appealed for there to be understanding about the difficulties they face.

“I think everybody should know that because of the pandemic a lot of things are being affected. We should expect things to move slower,” said Success Forever’s Mr Oei.

Mr Ooi of Limelite said that the public cannot expect their shrubbery to have a “Shangri-La look” all the time, even as more essential works like removing the dead branches of trees and grass-cutting continue.

Going forward, if this situation continues, he thinks that a more streamlined and manpower-light maintenance regime has to be considered for Singapore’s greenery, and this should be incorporated at the design stage.

“There should be some very good, clear guidelines when designing landscape – Number one is: (To be) equipment friendly when it comes to maintenance,” he said.

LONGER-TERM SOLUTIONS?

With the difficulties of hiring foreign workers, is a manpower-light future the way forward? 

Associate Professor of Economics Walter Theseira from the Singapore University of Social Sciences said that the alternative is adaptation. 

“On the production end, adaptations means shifting to greater use of technology and capital, redesigning jobs to make them more attractive to Singaporeans, and improving working conditions and pay,” he said. 

“On the consumer end, adaptation means accepting that any goods and services relying on foreign manpower will simply become priced out of reach of many consumers, or will have to be adjusted in scope and quality.”

He said that this need not mean “a huge reduction in our quality of life”.

“But it would mean that we have to change our expectations and behaviour considerably in many areas,” he said.

These may include fewer having live-in domestic workers, pricier food when dining out, and more expensive public services – including clean streets, road maintenance and trash removal.

He too thinks that this is a trend that’s here to stay as countries around the world, particularly those with underdeveloped public health systems, continue to face COVID-19 outbreaks.

“In addition, local transmission risk among migrant workers in Singapore will remain elevated due to the difficulty of creating living conditions that provide workers with substantially more private space,” he said.

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 the pandemic has definitely exposed one of the weaknesses of being so reliant on low-wage migrant labour, but this reliance is not an economic or social model that is unique to Singapore. 

“For this model to change, and to reduce dependence on foreigners to perform such work, there needs to be both legislative and mindset changes,” she said.

Prof Theseira expects that with less migrant manpower, Singapore companies’ output will fall as there are “significant limitations” to the extent to which technology or capital can be substituted in manpower-intensive sectors.

However, he also thinks current low-wage jobs could become more attractive to locals as firms raise wages and adapt to hire more locals.

“The key policy question really is whether we think the status quo is sustainable and can be managed simply through finding new source countries, addressing COVID-19 risks, and so on, or whether we should begin a process of gradually scaling back on migrant worker dependency and letting markets and societal expectations adjust,” said Professor Theseira. 

“It is understandable that nobody wants to rock the boat given that the current model appears to work well for many Singaporeans and for the economy. But there is some risk that the model will be permanently disrupted, if not by this COVID-19 pandemic, then by the next pandemic, geopolitical shifts or by economic growth in migrant worker source countries.”

Source: CNA/hm