Construction industry faces labour crunch following stricter rules

The Singapore construction industry is facing a labour crunch with stricter foreign manpower quota even as the pipeline of projects remains strong.

Many contractors are already taking measures to raise productivity but this is seen as just the first step forward.

For example, Sam Woh uses a $200,000 tracking system to pinpoint the exact location of its over 200 delivery trucks.

With this, the company can provide more accurate delivery times for building materials to its clients.

And it’s been able to raise productivity by 20 percent.

However, contractors hope that more can be done to help them retain higher skilled foreign workers.

Dr Ho Nyok Yong, President, Singapore Contractors Association, said: “Formerly they allow the workers to stay 18 years when they are skilled, but now they come up with 2 parts – basic skilled and higher skilled. For higher skilled, you need to take exams and pass exams in the Core Trade to extend your stay, if not by six years, you are going home.”

The Building and Construction Authority (BCA) is working with relevant ministries to review the length of stay for higher skilled workers.

Dr John Keung, CEO, Building and Construction Authority, said: “I do agree with them that it is important to give a longer period for these workers to gain experience so that they can be more productive, so a shorter period may not be the best way to go.”

Another way to go is to relook at how things are done, like what Lian Beng Group plans to do.

Lian Beng Group currently hires about 400 foreign workers at 9 construction sites in Singapore.

Since 2009, the company has invested some S$8 million on technology to cut its reliance on foreign manpower.

About 10 percent of the investment is funded through various government schemes.

Right now, two foreign workers are situated at the washing bay at the entrance of each construction site.

Their role is to remove earth from the wheels of trucks moving in and out of the work site.

Lian Beng says it intends to invest in automated wheel washing machines in the next few months to do this job.

Going forward, Lian Beng says it’s likely look into pre-casting technology to enable it to fabricate building components off-site.

Much like what the Housing and Development Board is doing.

HDB currently pre-fabricates about 70 percent of components of the flats, such as walls, floor slabs, staircases and refuse chute.

Jeffrey Teo, Construction Director, Lian Beng Construction, said: “The private sector, not many are doing pre-casting, so if HDB can more activity share this information especially with developers, the cost benefits and quality they will have.”

Responding to MediaCorp, HDB says its level of prefabrication is much higher than that of private sector developments which is at about 30 percent.

HDB adds that it has achieved construction labour productivity of 2.28 man-day per square metre – more productive than the private sector’s 3.13 man-day per squre metre for residential projects.

As part of efforts to promote the adoption of the prefabrication method, HDB says it regularly shares its experience with its consultants.

Last year, the construction sector booked S$32 billion in contracts and BCA expects demand to remain strong for the next 3 to 4 years.

Dr Keung says there will be some pain for the construction industry in the short term as they make the transition.

“All these years because of the availability of cheap foreign workers, our industry is not moving in a pace that is fast enough to catch up with the changes in the external environment, although some have moved forward”, Dr Keung said.

BCA says industry players can tap on the S$250 million Construction Productivity and Capability Fund which was launched in June 2010 to drive productivity growth.

Apart from investing in better technology, Dr Keung says there’s also a need to do better construction planning and execution in order to minimise the number of changes on-site.

Source : Channel NewsAsia – 1 Mar 2012

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