The Master Builders’ Association Western Cape (MBAWC) says it is “cautiously confident” that the construction industry is ready to return to work safely, and maintains that the longer the industry remains dormant, the greater the financial losses its members will need to bear.
These losses threaten the continued employment of thousands of workers in the industry in the Cape Peninsula, says MBAWC executive director Allen Bodill.
“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.”
The performance of the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) - Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (TERS) scheme has further exacerbated the plight of construction staff, adds Bodill.
MBAWC recently conducted a poll among 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 May 20, 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,” says Bodill.
Reactivation of Projects Vital
Bodill says millions of rands have already been invested in projects that were in progress at the start of the lockdown at the end of March.
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, notes Bodill.
“As residential alteration and renovation construction projects were also stalled, there are many people that are ‘camping’ in partially completed homes with unfinished kitchens, bathrooms and open roofs.
“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 employee representatives from trade unions, employer bodies and the BIBC regarding measures to allow employers and their workers to claw back lost time and income.
These measures will be implemented as soon as contractors are permitted to resume work.
Alert Level 4 currently only allows for contractors working on State infrastructure projects to return to work.
As viewed from an occupational health and safety perspective, the broader construction sector is well-prepared to return to work, says Bodill.
“We are used to operating under strict health and safety protocols.
“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 protective gear 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,” believes Bodill.
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, he adds.
“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,” emphasises Bodill.
“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.”
Bodill also 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. Just think of the New Deal in the US after the Great Depression.”