Lee Bee Wah: Contractors frustrated over new regulations before they can resume work

"How to start work?"

Sulaiman Daud | June 04, 2020, 11:16 PM

Member of Parliament Lee Bee Wah spoke out on behalf of contractors and the construction industry during the Budget Debate on June 4, outlining the problems they face as Singapore transits to Phase 1 post-circuit breaker.

Lee qualified her statements as a professional engineer and someone involved in property development and construction, which perhaps gave her a deeper insight.

Happiness to frustration

While the living and working conditions of Singapore's migrant workers are changing due to the impact of Covid-19, this meant that contractors and construction companies had to make adjustments.

"When government announced that construction sector can start work in Phase 1, all the contractors were very happy", Lee said, "but their happiness turned to frustration soon, when they found out the number of approvals required before they can start work."

Lee said she received many complaints from contractors who were confused and unhappy about the situation.

More stringent dormitory requirements from MOM

Lee said that MOM announced certain new rules, such as no double-decker beds and a living space size of a minimum of 6 square metres, as opposed to 4.5 square metres previously, which meant that current dormitories have to change.

"So all the current dormitories do not comply," she said.

"So if you don't have dormitories that comply, no approval for safe dormitories, cannot start work. So how to comply to new requirements within (a) short period?"

Lee elaborated that "medical experts have been saying that as long as people live together, they are likely to infect each other".

She said that contractors are not convinced that the new measures are "much safer" than the current standards, and asked MOM to be more flexible, "otherwise, how to start work?"

Compulsory swabbing

Lee then addressed the compulsory swab tests for workers.

She asked about the current swabbing capacity, and questioned why there were "long queues" for swab tests.

She also said that these compulsory swab tests could last until August or September.

"So, how to start work?" she asked.

Compulsory SMO and SDO

Lee then pointed out that another compulsory requirement was having Safe Distancing Officers (SDO) and Safe Management Officers (SMO).

However, this is an online course and the next available session is on July 5, which would hamper construction companies who lack SDOs and SMOs.

Lee asked why these courses were not conducted during Circuit Breaker, and asked for more courses so that a bottleneck would not form.

Lee said: "So no SMO, no SDO, no start work."

Flexibility for construction workers

Lee said that an "uproar" occurred and she received many texts and phone calls because contractors needed to give consent from MOM to deploy their recovered workers by June 10, otherwise they will not be able to receive their levy waiver.

Lee said this was "high-handed", and that the pandemic illustrated the need for different agencies to work together instead of working in siloes.

She mentioned the Building and Construction Authority's "tiers", in which it assigned different tiers to different construction projects, and advocated letting the construction companies take the lead.

As long as the workers have been tested and found negative, Lee said she believes they should be allowed to work.

With all these challenges, Lee said that it will be months before construction companies can start again, and until then, they won't be able to earn income.

Suggestions to help the industry

To help support the industry, Lee made three suggestions.

Firstly, she asked the government to bear the costs of swab tests beyond August 2020.

Secondly, she suggested that the Foreign Worker Levy waiver and rebate be extended to August as well as June and July.

Thirdly, she suggested that the government could expand the 30 per cent property tax rebate to all industrial buildings and waive land rental until August.

She also asked for more support for people supporting the construction industry, such as consultants, engineers, architects, resident engineers and resident technical officers, who are "not sure" if they would receive help through the Jobs Support Scheme.

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Top image from CNA