SINGAPORE (May 15): Singapore’s construction sector will gradually resume operations, starting with critical projects once the circuit breaker ends on Jun 1.

The move comes as most construction work has been suspended during the circuit breaker following a high incidence of Covid-19 cases amongst workers from the industry. 

Migrant workers from the construction sector had also been issued a 28-day stay home notice from Apr 20, in a bid to curb transmission of the virus.

Presently, only 5% of the construction workforce or around 20,000 workers have been allowed to continue work on a few critical infrastructure projects.

Another 5% or 20,000 workers are expected to gradually resume work in June, bringing the total active construction workforce to 10%. 

Resuming works include critical, time sensitive projects such as MRT works, deep tunnel sewerage system tunneling projects and previously suspended residential renovation works, said Hugh Lim CEO of the Building and Construction and Authority (BCA) at a media briefing on Friday.

However, construction firms will first have to adhere to new safe management guidelines such as: avoiding cross-deployment of workers between projects and tapping on technology to monitor their health daily.

Employers will also have to house workers based on the projects they are working on and provide transportation between their worksite and accommodation, said Lim. 

This means workers on the same project will be housed in the same facility, regardless of the company they are working for. They will also not be allowed to mix with someone working on another project.

“For a start, they will only be permitted to leave for the purpose of work. After work (they will have) to return immediately to their dormitory,” said Ministry of Manpower permanent secretary Aubeck Kam.

Migrant workers will only be allowed to leave their premises for “non-work” purposes once the number of dormitory cases are “brought down to a very low level,” added Chew Ee Tien, the director of MOM’s foreign manpower unit.

Meanwhile, safe management measures will also be practiced at worksites, with workers only being allowed to enter and exit specific zones. They will also be split into teams and be restricted to work in a single zone such that there is no interaction or cross-deployment with another team.

In response to queries on the costs of these measures, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said contractors will be held responsible.

Acknowledging that this will equate to higher construction costs, he said “all of us have to be prepared to pay this higher cost, because we want construction work to be done safely”.

With this in mind, Wong stressed that 'criticality' will not form the sole basis to determine whether a project will be allowed to start. 

"Even if a project is most meritorious of restarting work but the contractor is unable to show safeguards are doable, they are not able to put all workers at same site, then they will not be able to resume work, no matter how important the project is," he stressed.

As such, he said projects will be considered based on whether they have put the necessary safe guards in place. This is a bid to protect workers and prevent further outbreaks of Covid-19 which may once again halt work and derail a resumption of economic activity.

"We recognise that such measures are an additional imposition, but we are very heartened that companies do see the need to protect their workers,” said BCA’s Lim.

"We want to see the extent to which the industry is able to implement very tight measures, because if partners find them hard to implement even on a limited scale, if we expand too quickly, there will be breaches,” he added, estimating the process will take at least two months.

“We want to avoid a situation where the industry has to stop again on a large scale after having restarted."

Circuit breaker

As Singaporeans look forward to the lifting of the circuit breaker on Jun 1, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong stressed that the measures will be lifted “carefully and slowly” to avoid a likely increase in community cases.

“We have to bear in mind that today, the community cases are low, primarily because of the circuit breaker measures that we have put in place, including that we have actually moved a lot of the working environment to home-based telecommuting, and we have actually stopped the bulk of the construction work in Singapore,” he said.

As at 12pm on Friday, Singapore reported 793 new infections bringing the total number of Covid-19 cases here to 26,891. Among these is one Singaporean or permanent resident, while migrant workers living in dormitories form the bulk of the remaining cases.

Gan is now looking at a “step-by-step, cautious” approach to lift the circuit breaker measures. South Korea, for one, was surprised by a new cases after the initial lockdown was lifted. Similar occurrences have been reported in China.

“We hope that if we [lift the circuit breaker] carefully and do it right, the number, even as it goes up, it will continue to go up slowly, and it will continue to remain under control and we will be able to step up our contact tracing, our quarantine efforts to minimise the risk of transmission in the community, and minimise the risk of large clusters being formed.”

“We are not going to have a big party after Jun 1,” said Gan.