As economic growth in India and China roars ahead, lifting wages, companies in Singapore addicted to cheap labour are scouring other countries as potential sources. A story in the Straits Times, January 20, 2012, reported that where they used to turn to China, India and Bangladesh, they are now recruiting from ‘non-traditional’ sources such as Myanmar (Burma).

The newspaper quoted Mr David Tay, group public relations manager of construction firm Koh Brothers as saying: “‘We’re seriously looking at Myanmar as a source. At the moment, they are a small minority among our 500 or so foreign construction workers.”

But what about mechanisation?

Dr Ho Nyok Yong, the president of the Singapore Contractors Association (Scal), warned that not every process on a construction site can be replaced by a machine. And even for those that can be replaced, workers are still needed to operate the machines.

Construction companies are in a bind also because countries enjoying a building boom will have fewer workers looking to come here.

At the moment, fewer are coming from China for this reason.

Mr Kenneth Loo, the director of construction firm Straits Construction, said workers from China are finding that, with the building boom at home, they can earn only slightly more here.

Mr Loo said: ‘It’s a perennial supply-and-demand issue and we just have to pay more and labour costs will go up.’

He estimated that his labour cost has risen 10 per cent to 20 per cent in the last six months, and expects it to increase further.

‘A lot depends on the domestic market in China and India. If it’s strong, then we are essentially competing for the same resources,’ he said.

— Straits Times, January 20, 2012: Building firms look farther afield for workers, by Lin Wenjian

The newspaper noted that currently, the Ministry of Manpower allows construction companies to hire work permit employees from twelve shortlisted countries*.

*A quick check by TWC2 found that the twelve “approved” sources countries for the construction and marine sectors are: Bangladesh, China, Hong Kong, India, Macau, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Thailand — of which at least five aren’t cheap.

TWC2 is planning an outreach to workers from Myanmar in the months ahead.