Public housing in Clementi nearing completion

“The public sector is expected to contribute about 60 per cent of the total construction demand this year,” was the interesting nugget of information buried within a Straits Times story Construction demand for 2022 to return to near pre-Covid-19 levels, published 27 January 2022.

The Building and Construction Authority (BCA) estimated on Wednesday (Jan 26) that contracts worth between $27 billion and $32 billion will likely be awarded this year. That is around the same level recorded in 2019.

The newspaper added that projected demand from 2023 to 2026 will be between $25 billion and $32 billion a year, and that of the total value of construction contracts expected to be given out this year, about $16 billion to $19 billion will be related to public sector projects.

We reckon the main types of work will involve public housing, transport infrastructure and healthcare facilities.

Whilst it does not automatically follow that 60% of construction workers will be working on public sector projects – because private sector and public sector projects may have different ratios of contract value to workforce required – it is not unsafe to assume that perhaps half or more of construction workers will be on projects given out by the government.

Inflow of migrant construction workers improving

The same Straits Times story also reported Minister of State for National Development Tan Kiat How saying at a Building and Construction Authority seminar that manpower shortages in the industry are being resolved and the inflow of foreign workers has steadily improved.

“As compared to the period when travel restrictions and tightened entry approvals were in place last year, the current monthly inflow of foreign workers has more than doubled.”

However, no figures were given.

The government can therefore have a huge influence on ethical labour standards in the construction industry if it puts its mind to it.

Across the world, large corporations are being held to a higher standard for their supply chains. Where fast fashion brands source their merchandise, where food brands source their agricultural inputs, where hotels get their manpower and how they treat them are being scrutinised by an increasing share of the public. Corporate responsibility, now formalised by modern slavery legislation in a growing number of countries, extends to the labour ethics standards of their suppliers and subcontractors; it is not merely confined to their direct employees.

Similarly, governments are being held to the same standards in their procurement.

Only recently, the Canadian government, albeit after some pressure from the Canadian public, cancelled their contracts with the Malaysian-based glove manufacturing group Supermax “following allegations of forced labour practices”. Read this press release from Public Services and Procurement Canada dated 25 January 2022.

A news story from Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) helpfully describes the allegations:

Most come from Bangladesh and Nepal, [British solicitor Nusrat Uddin] said, and are heavily indebted from paying problematic “recruitment fees” to their employers. Their families depend on them to send income home, but they are economically dependent on their employer.

Their work days are long and hot; Malaysia only recently changed its law to prohibit working seven days a week. Uddin said she’s seen evidence of workers housed in row upon row of bunks in overcrowded accommodations.

She said the workers’ movements were restricted during the pandemic. Some had their passports taken away and were unable to leave their employer’s premises for up to 18 months, she added.

All of these abuses are endemic in Singapore too and each is recognised by the International Labour Organisation as an indicator of forced labour. Singapore does not even prohibit working seven days a week.

The same CBC story also mentions that the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) bans the use of forced labour. Singapore ratified this treaty in 2018 and we must live up to its standards.

If the Singapore government required all contractors bidding for their tenders to prove clean supply chains with regard to ethical hiring and require them to provide independent audit reports (the same way Canada wants Supermax to do), it will make a huge difference. Contractors will likewise have to ensure that their subcontractors meet the same standards, and so on down the line.

Although this is a completely different approach from the criminal justice approach we are currently relying on, the two approaches are not mutually exclusive but complement each other.

The criminal justice approach relies on victims coming forward and providing evidence. In situations where there is a power differential between victims and abusers or where victims will find it hard to collect evidence, the criminal justice approach is stymied. Moreover, this approach often subjects the victim to a long period of waiting due to the slow pace of justice systems, and for migrant workers from poorer countries, they cannot endure the wait for compensation or justice. They have to get back to work as soon as possible without the hassle of attending prosecutor’s conferences, making affidavits and testifying in court. How many new employers will hire them if they have keep taking time off to do these things? So, for many workers, they may choose not to report the matter. But if they don’t report it, then the criminal justice system never gets to work. That is partly why the problem of labour abuse is endemic.

Writing labour standards into tenders and setting up audit requirements is a preventive approach. With the government issuing a large share of construction contracts, it will make a huge impact if they start doing so.