Ripples from India: New entry ban will further squeeze manpower in construction, landscape maintenance sector, Singapore News & Top Stories

SINGAPORE – The frightening surge in Covid-19 cases in India has had repercussions around the world, and Singapore has not been spared, with delays and disruptions across the economy.

Much of the impact stems from a ruling that has barred all long-term pass holders and short-term visitors who have travelled to India within the last 14 days from entering or transiting through Singapore since April 24.

The same entry ban for all long-term pass holders and short-term visitors who have been in Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka kicked in at 11.59pm yesterday.

Sectors such as construction and landscape maintenance – which employ many Indian and Bangladeshi workers – have been hard hit even as they have faced an already diminished workforce since the onset of the pandemic last year.

Home buyers are being warned of longer waiting times for their property and higher costs as construction companies turn to countries such as China and Myanmar to source alternative manpower, which may be more costly given the increased demand.

HSL Group chief executive Charles Quek had hoped to bring in around 100 more new building workers from India over the next few months, but those hopes were dashed when the entry ban took effect.

“On the one hand, we need more workers to come in to complete projects; on the other hand, the construction sector cannot afford a second Covid-19 outbreak,” he said.

Mr Quek cited the cluster at Westlite Woodlands dormitory and noted: “If more dorms get affected and go into lockdown, the effect will be even worse than what we’re going through now.

“At least projects are still moving now, even if it’s at a slower pace than before.”

His company’s building projects have been running at 70 per cent of the manpower compared with pre-Covid-19 days, while productivity is even lower as workers have to abide by safe management measures at worksites.

“This restriction will set projects back by a few more months but it’s very difficult to say how long exactly because we don’t know how long the restrictions will be in place,” he said.

Besides housing, other buildings such as healthcare facilities and infrastructure projects will also be delayed, said the Singapore Contractors Association the day after the ban was announced.

Companies in both the construction and landscape maintenance sectors said they have had to quickly reshuffle existing resources and prioritise urgent projects.

Straits Construction executive director Kenneth Loo said: “We’ll just have to work with the resources on hand, planning according to what is urgent in the immediate short term and finding alternative ways of doing things.

“If projects slow down, or stop, we still have to pay wages, equipment rental and other overhead costs which add up over time.

“It would help if the increased cost is spread out across the various stakeholders and not just falling on one party.”

Mr Loo, who was planning to bring in new workers from Bangladesh to supplement his workforce, said it will now be challenging to get a sufficient number of workers required from other countries.

Prioritising key projects

Associate Professor Lawrence Loh from National University of Singapore’s Business School said the construction sector cannot afford to come to a standstill yet again, like it did for two months when Singapore entered the circuit breaker period in April last year.

“The knock-on effect on other sectors will be huge.

“Building and infrastructure is where economic activity starts, so if there’s a bottleneck in construction, it will hinder Singapore’s recovery efforts,” he added.

Likewise, companies and associations in the landscape maintenance sector said the new border restrictions will put a further squeeze on manpower.

Workers from India and Bangladesh make up the bulk of the foreign workforce in the industry, with others coming from Myanmar and the Philippines.

Mr Goh Eng Lam, chairman of the Landscape Industry Association (Singapore), acknowledged the stress that workers in the sector are already facing.

Mr Goh wants the Government to stress to the public and service buyers that they should be prioritising essential projects that are vital for public health and safety, while putting non-essential services on hold until the manpower situation improves.

“Projects that are nice to have – such as sprucing up a location for a VIP visit – can be delayed a little bit, or slowed down,” he said.

He added: “If everyone is expecting workers to be doing extra work on the ground (to make up for the shortage of manpower), this may lead to fatigue for the workers, and this can lead to mistakes and compromise their safety.

“The multi-ministry task force should continue to remind everyone that with this manpower shortage, things are not back to the pre-Covid days.”

But he said that members understand the need for tight border controls: “We want to ensure that there will not be a second wave of infections.”