Contractors struggle with manpower crunch as migrant workers are unable to return

7 Dec 2020

Contractors are unable to renew work permits for employees who are stuck overseas due to the currently-imposed limited entry approvals for work pass holders. BCA and MOM explained that the limit is aimed at reducing the risk of imported COVID-19 cases.

Faced with a backlog of projects since construction activities was allowed to fully resume in August following the COVID-19 circuit breaker, construction companies are under pressure to meet project deadlines as many of their migrant workers are stuck overseas.

Among those in desperate need of workers is Kongsberg Technology.

Kongsberg Technology General Manager Sim Kian Eng said the company has 35 workers in Singapore while another six are overseas, which include those with expired work passes such as Matharan Subbiah, reported Channel News Asia (CNA).

Subbiah returned to India in February for a break, and booked a ticket back to the city-state in April. After months of waiting to return to work, his work permit expired in November. This means he is no longer officially considered Kongsberg Technology’s employee, said CNA.

Sim, who plans to rehire Subbiah once the opportunity arises, revealed that he needs eight to 10 more workers.

And while he has already requested for workers via a recruitment agency as well as the Singapore Contractors Association Limited’s (SCAL) Construction Manpower Exchange – which is a platform for companies to hire workers already in Singapore – he is yet to receive a positive response.

As such, his workers have been rendering overtime work to cope with the labour crunch.

Although “the strain isn’t there yet”, Sim said his company expects to start “some big projects” early next year. 

Meanwhile, Chan Chi Lon, Founder of O2r Fire System, saw costs increase as the company had to engage more sub-contractors. In fact, the company recently dropped a project since it was unable to meet the client’s price.

Chan had planned to scale up the business this year, but the uncertainties brought about by COVID-19 led the company to taking on just enough projects to sustain it.

Fortunately, none of his workers left the company – probably because their salaries were not slashed during the circuit breaker, he said.

Chan has heard of workers transferring to another job offering a higher salary.

Under existing rules, workers whose work permits are between 21 and 40 days of expiring can transfer to another company without the consent of their current employer.

Both the SCAL and Ministry of Manpower (MOM) have acknowledged the issue. 

In an October circular, SCAL revealed that several members had told them of an increasing number of workers “seeking transfer to other companies without knowledge or consent of the current employer, requesting for higher salaries”. 

MOM also sent out a notice to contractors in November, saying it is aware of the manpower constraints.

The ministry advised employers to retain their current workers by working out “mutually acceptable terms early”, while reminding them that work passes may be renewed as early as two months prior to expiry.

In a joint statement to CNA, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) and MOM explained that the limited entry approvals for work pass holders was aimed at reducing the risk of imported COVID-19 cases as well as protecting public health.

It added that processing of new work pass applications from countries with lower health risks like China had been gradually resumed by MOM.

“We will continue to adjust our border measures taking into account feedback from the industry about their need for new foreign workers and as the global situation evolves,” they said.

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