Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC, at the Second Reading of the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) (Amendment No. 2) Bill.
Our construction sector has been suffering for the past year. Labor supply has been constrained, and cashflow has been tight. Some construction firms have already gone under, and the struggle is real for those still clinging on.
This Bill helps them. Those who have to pay will have more time to pay. Those who need to deliver will have more time to deliver. I thank MND for looking out for both sides.
Sir, I have two points of clarification.
Factors considered for extension
My first point is about the factors that went into deciding on this extension. Can MOS clarify what factors were considered before granting the initial four-month extension in November and now this six-month extension?
The construction sector does need help. But a strong economic recovery must also be built on the rock-solid foundation of contractual obligations.
One year after the start of the pandemic, we are granting a second extension of contract deadlines that is even longer than the first extension.
While I support these amendments, can I ask if MND has also studied the impacts to the companies the construction firms has been granted relief from? Are these companies also clinging on and will they go under due to these reliefs granted to the construction firms?
We have said that during this relief period, parties are encouraged to negotiate and resolve their differences in an amicable and mutually beneficial manner. Can I ask MOS what percentage of parties were able to resolve their difference in an amicable and mutually beneficial manner?
Further, I hope that MND can shed light on a few questions.
First, can MND share what factors it considered in determining this particular course of action?
Second, can MND share whether it will consider further extensions of the same nature and, if so, what factors it will consider before making such decisions?
Sir, I think no one in this House disagrees that we want to help our businesses survive. But we should also be concerned about the unintended side-effects of our decisions.
Singapore has always had a reputation as a business-friendly country. With this Bill, we might risk that reputation by again intervening with how contracts play out. It remains unclear whether there will be a third, a fourth and then a fifth extension.
I hope the government will articulate a long-term plan for our construction sector that clarifies these doubts.
That brings me to my next point.
Rehire experienced former workers
My second point is about how MND and the rest of government can help the construction sector bounce back on its feet.
This crisis is an opportunity for our construction firms to become more nimble. More than ever, they need to embrace automation, upskilling and other productivity-related initiatives.
But such processes take time to implement. In the short run, our construction industry needs workers to fulfill the projects it has already committed to based on pre-pandemic labor conditions.
Therefore, I hope that MND will work with other government ministries to create a temporary scheme, where employers can more easily rehire work-permit and S-pass workers who have been repatriated to their countries in the past year.
MND has taken some steps in this direction by allowing workers that have previously obtained the necessary Skills Evaluation Certificate (Knowledge) test (SEC(K) test) qualifications in a particular trade to return and work in the same trade in Singapore, without retaking the SEC(K) test.
The unfortunate reality of COVID-19 is that many companies have shut down. During the painful months of circuit breaker and dorm lockdowns, many experienced workers did not manage to find new employers and were often repatriated rather than circulated back into our economy.
These were workers with experience living and working here. They know the expectations, they know the environment. It is more efficient to rehire them than to roll the dice with new workers. But there is no easy way for companies to find and hire these workers.
MND and other ministries should work together to help reduce the obstacles to rehiring such workers.
We can also provide more help for companies to hire workers who want to remain in Singapore but whose company has decided to terminate their contracts and send them back to their home country.
A temporary scheme to reconnect employers with such workers will be much appreciated by workers and employers, and it will help our economy.
Sir, notwithstanding my clarifications, I stand in support of this Bill.
Watch the speech here.