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Singapore eases rules to help construction sector find its feet; 40,000 workers set to benefit

/ 01:32 PM August 13, 2020

SINGAPORE — In a major move to revive the construction industry, the authorities have cleared the decks for thousands of workers to restart work without their employers needing to apply for approvals.

The change applies to jobs that require relatively few workers – such as lift maintenance and renovation work – and could help the construction sector find its feet more quickly after all workers have been tested.

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It will allow an additional 40,000 or so workers to get back on the job, as long as they are free of the virus and live in Covid-19-cleared accommodations, for instance.

Contractors must still apply to the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) to begin work at construction sites and premises such as ready-mixed concrete plants and sand terminals, as these usually involve more manpower.

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Mr Kenneth Loo, the executive director of Straits Construction Singapore, said of the move: “These are challenging times so every little bit helps. It is a good way to kick-start the resumption of construction work that has been stalling.”

With much of the sector’s workforce confined to dormitories in the past four months, and work slowing down, the construction sector contracted 59.3 per cent in the second quarter, compared with last year.

The latest announcement to revive it comes a day after the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said that all dormitories, with the exception of 17 blocks in six purpose-built dormitories that serve as quarantine facilities, have been cleared of the coronavirus.

The BCA also removed a rule that allowed employers to restart work only after they have re-housed workers in the same project at no more than 10 different premises.

The rule, which industry stakeholders said has been a major challenge for firms, aimed to reduce the risk of infection when workers from different dorms interacted on sites, and minimize the number of dorms affected if a Covid-19 case surfaced.

Employers can now begin work even if their workers are housed at more than 10 addresses, but the BCA said they should still continue reducing the number of accommodation sites for their staff.

It added: “Contractors should take into account the larger number of workers on site and enforce strict zoning of their workforce, and ensure that workers residing in different accommodation or performing different activities do not intermingle on site.”

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Audits and inspections will be stepped up to ensure rules are being followed.

Meanwhile, the BCA, the MOM, the Economic Development Board and other agencies are working to reorganize worker accommodation so that those in the same company stay at the same address. This will involve re-housing 160,000 workers in 43 dormitories by Sept 30.

The construction sector last year accounted for 4 per cent of Singapore’s economy. After it was battered by the pandemic, around 3,300 construction site projects have already been approved to restart.

Maybank Kim Eng senior economist Chua Hak Bin felt, however, that recovery in the sector will likely be slow despite the relaxation of rules, given the approvals required for major construction sites.

He said: “There remains a high risk that some construction firms will not be able to survive and cope with the higher costs from meeting these stricter conditions.”

New measures were also announced yesterday for dormitory residents to enjoy their rest days. The MOM will start trials this month for residents from selected dormitories to visit recreation centers on rest days to run errands such as buying groceries and remitting money.

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