It is vital that the entire construction industry be allowed to return to work as soon as possible. If this does not happen, the Western Cape stands to lose over 110 000 jobs and R14.9bn in wages this year.
This is according to a recent submission to Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma from Minister David Maynier, in which he requests that under Alert Level 4 restrictions, construction be allowed to expand operations beyond public sector engineering and construction, to include commercial, industrial and private residential construction.
Allen Bodill, Executive Director of the Master Builders’ Association Western Cape (MBAWC) welcomes and commends this submission, especially given that the industry body has lobbied the Western Cape Government on behalf of their membership to urgently recommence work on all projects that were active at the time of the lockdown, irrespective of the nature of the work.
Urgent call for reopening
The MBAWC is cautiously confident that the industry is prepared to return to work safely and maintains that the longer the industry remains dormant, the greater the financial losses will be for companies to bear. These losses threaten the continued employment of thousands of workers in the industry in the Cape Peninsula.
“We have fielded innumerable desperate calls from industry workers, who have described their circumstances of real hardship, in not being able to purchase electricity or food,” says Bodill.
The performance of the UIF/TERS scheme has further exacerbated the plight of the construction staff. MBAWC recently conducted a poll amongst its members who have submitted claims to the UIF/TERS fund to cover the period of the lockdown up to the end of April. As at 20th May only 12.7% of them had been paid, 18% partially paid and 64.8% had not been paid anything at all.
“We have been working with the Building Industry Bargaining Council (BIBC) to identify the issues that members are challenged with, in the hope of finding solutions, but the situation has led to enormous anger and frustration,” Bodill adds.
The reactivation of active construction projects is imperative
Millions of Rands have already been invested in projects that were in progress at the commencement of the lockdown and their current stalled status impacts the entire supply chain, from developers to contractors to subcontractors and also suppliers.
The lives of many South African homeowners have also been impacted. “As residential alteration and renovation construction projects were also stalled, there are currently many people that are “camping” in partially completed homes with unfinished kitchens, bathrooms and open roofs,” says Bodill. “With the winter weather approaching, we have received many desperate appeals from homeowners, for contractors to be allowed to urgently return to sites to secure and complete these residential projects.”
According to Bodill, there has been encouraging and positive cooperation between the Employee Representatives in the Trade Unions, the Employer Bodies and the Bargaining Council, with regards to measures to allow employers and their workers claw back lost time and income. These measures will be implemented as soon as the contractors are permitted to resume work.
Health and Safety is key for construction
As viewed from an Occupational Health and Safety perspective, the construction sector is well-prepared to return to work. We are used to operating under strict health and safety protocols, says Bodill.
“The construction industry has for many years been subject to a highly regulated Health and Safety working environment. Contractors already have well-developed resources in place to comply with legislation requiring site-specific safety plans. These include the provision of appropriate PPE and the regular monitoring of the health and safety of the workforce.
“Whilst the additional COVID-19 specific precautions will undoubtedly add cost and responsibilities to contractors, their experience with regard to well-practiced site health and safety protocols will stand them in good stead in implementing and managing these additional responsibilities.”
Along with this vitally important experience in maintaining site safety and health, and given that some of the construction sites are outdoors or in open areas, many of the workers are likely to be less exposed to the risk of infections on those sites, compared to visiting crowded shopping malls or using public transport, Bodill explained.
Fast-tracking projects to boost the sector and the economy
The MBAWC further calls on National and Provincial authorities to fast-track the processing and approval of infrastructure projects currently in the pipeline, as this would boost jobs, not only in the industry, but throughout the wider supply chain.
“Historically, infrastructure projects have been proven to boost economic recovery and create jobs during financial crises,” Bodill said. “Just think of the New Deal in the USA after the Great Depression.”
In closing he says: “We unequivocally support the State’s efforts to save lives, but the way the regulations are being implemented across the risk-adjusted levels is not logical. There is no difference between a contractor working on a public works site and one working on a commercial project or residential home. The transport challenges, the sourcing and supply of materials and many of the individual work-related tasks are much the same.”
“As such, we implore the National Government to allow the construction sector as a whole to return to work immediately, in order to save the industry and more than 100 000 local jobs that depend on it,” concludes Bodill.