Like many Singaporeans, I was saddened by news of two PRC Chinese workers tragically killed in the MRT construction site at Bugis on Thursday.
Even our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has expressed disappointment on his Facebook page stating that the accident should not have happened.
However, he did not elaborate further and an investigation will be conducted by the Ministry of Manpower on whether any malpractices have occurred resulting in the accident.
Increasing accident fatalities in construction sector
We have heard of more fatal accidents happening recently as our country gears up on its’ construction projects all over the island.
I have not seen so much digging and toiling in my small red dot than the past five years. Sometimes, you can see a few projects going on at the same time and some even happen right at our door step.
I stayed in Punggol for the past year and could hear the incessant pounding sometimes till late at night when foreign workers rush to complete their work at the nearby HDB construction site.
Complaints to the town council went blank as their explanation was that since the flats are still in construction phase, the issue is not within their jurisdiction.
I was later referred to someone from the environment who told me that construction sites can work till 10pm even on weekend if the noise generated is below a certain decibel!
HDB has being trying to complete new housing projects ahead of time due to the influx of newly-converted citizens keen on purchasing a BTO HDB flat from the government.
All along, the HDB has been constructing flats on demand resulting in a under-supply situation which caused many citizens to vote against the government in GE 2011.
After GE 2011, the new minister for national development Mr Khaw stepped up production of new HDB flats resulting in a renewed furious pounding on our small island.
I always have this fear that one day, because of too much vigorous construction going on at the same time, our island may sink beneath us and disappear!
Moreover, just not too long ago, the two new integrated resorts and different private housing projects have also caused the construction sector to step up it’s activities incessantly.
In 2009, the total employment in the construction sector was about 385,000 – up from about 234,000 in 2005. A total of 6,251 construction worksites were registered with the Ministry of Manpower in 2009 (mom.gov.sg).
Over the past three years, the sector accounted for more than one third of all workplace fatalities, with a fatality rate of 8.1 per 100,000 workers in 2009.
The fatalities at the construction sector have been steadily increasing from 24 in year 2006 to 31 in year 2009. For year 2007 and 2008, the fatalities were 24 and 25 respectively.
A significant proportion of these incidents were a result of falls from height, mainly from inadequate protection from hazards such as open sides and floor openings at worksites. Struck by falling objects was the second highest incident type. Reflecting the risks associated with working beneath cranes and scaffolds, or where overhead work is being performed, struck by falling objects accounted for nearly one-third of the total construction fatalities in 2009.
I have read somewhere on Yahoo news that the contractors involved in the DTL Bugis line do not have enough skilled supervisors to monitor the construction site activities which may result in the tragic accident. This however is not substantiated.
I could not retrieve the article when I did another search later on.
Shortage of construction specialists
Transitioning has also recently received emails from companies asking for construction specialists as they could not find relevant local engineers with construction-related work experience.
Local graduates who have civil engineering degrees tend to be snapped up with attractive terms quickly so that they will stay on in their jobs.
Many local graduates who chose engineering as their core subject also preferred the more prestigious triple-E electrical or mechanical engineering faculty.
Transitioning so far has seen less than 1% of jobless PMETs who possessed civil engineering diplomas or degrees and the few we saw are mostly snapped up fast by local construction companies.
Just two weeks ago, a local employer from the construction company emailed me:-
“The shortage in the construction industry has been acute and many companies have been losing money and shrinking operations, or relocating out of Singapore because of this lack of manpower and turning to foreigners to fill these positions isn’t an option either because of the tightened conditions recently by MOM. Do let me know if you have anything.”
He has been asking me for local jobless civil engineers to fill key positions but I told him that there isn’t any available yet.on our database.
He later emailed me with some good news:-
“There are some initiatives we’re working on with the Building Authority, one of which may be to see if your M&E engineers can take BCA academy courses and then go through our 6/12 month site training under the PE to qualify them as site supervisors. Manpower problems in the construction industry are really desperate because of the tightening in the labour market and we need to find solutions before more firms close down.”
It is unsure if the construction company is related to the recent Bugis DTL construction accident.
Transitioning has lately received quite alot of requests from local employers wanting to hire our sidelined engineers – mostly retrenched from the semi-con industry in 2008/09.
One of them is a huge MNC specialising in oil and gas engineering with well over a few hundred engineers on its payroll. The one main dismal news is that 80% of its engineers are hired from overseas.
Thus, unskilled Bangladeshi and PRC Chinese workers earn less than $20 a day toiling under our hot tropical weather in dangerous conditions.
Local Aussies working in costruction sector
Over here in Sydney, I have seen many White Aussies carrying out the same work activities required by the construction sector back home in Singapore.
They grind cement, fetch planks over construction site and laid bricks on pavement of new housing sites.
Seldom do I see a low-skilled non-white worker in the construction site.
Australia has strict rules to import unskilled blue-collared workers though I heard that the mines in Western Australia were given permission to bring in foreign workers soon.
I also heard that construction workers in Australia need to go for a building construction certificate course and their pay hovers between A$3000 – a$3500 a month – for starters.
Our construction workers will count themselves lucky if they earn S$1000 a month working seven days a week.
Overhaul on construction sector needed
Perhaps, we need to have an overhaul on how we view the blue-collared foreigner-dominated construction sector.
Given the right pay scale and proper work conditions, I am sure that our locals will give the sector a favourable second look.
There will be the day when we may even have difficulty filling up positions even if we try to recruit from overseas due to political consideration.
I have also always fear that we may be over extending ourselves by bringing in too many foreign workers to ease the low birth rate in Singapore resulting in a infrastructure bottle neck.
More than 1.8 million foreigners work and live among us now and the bulk of them arrived in the last ten years without us preparing any blueprint for town planning nor is there any attempt by the government to open up a public discussion to engage the population on this important issue.
The sudden new addition not only severely stifles our transport system resulting in the infamous MRT train shut down end of last year but also cause our construction companies to rush through projects resulting in accidents.
Let us learn from this tragic MRT construction accident and hopefully it won’t ever happen again.
Written by Gilbert Goh