Letters & Opinion

Easing Labour Pains in The Construction Sector

Cletus I. Springer
By Cletus I. Springer

ABOUT a week ago, the Government of Guyana advertised vacancies for building contractors and tradesmen to work in its booming construction industry. With all international financial institutions predicting its oil-fueled economy will grow by a whopping 29% this year, and by 20% in 2025, the country’s construction industry is set for at least a decade of expansion.

The current and projected demand for construction workers in Guyana is good and bad news for other Caribbean countries. Those with a shortage of skilled labour, will likely take a hit. However, viewed positively, many unemployed and/or under-employed building contractors and tradesmen in the region, will presumably find regular, decent work in Guyana. This osmotic transfer of skilled labour within the region is not new. Saint Lucians flocked to Guyana during the 50s and 60s to work in its precious metals sector. More recently, following the passage of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, many tradesmen from CARICOM countries were pulled to Dominica to work in its reconstruction programme. Some Saint Lucians are still there. There are others working in St. Kitts and Nevis, and Cayman Islands.

The free movement of skilled labour within CARICOM was a front-burner preoccupation of Caribbean leaders, long before the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) was formalized through the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas (RTOC). However, in this commentary, I argue that this feature of the RTOC should be buttressed by the following: (1) a system for classifying occupations for the construction sector; and (2) a national and regional certification and licensing system for construction workers. Absent these measures, the integrity and resilience of the construction sector and by extension, the CSME, will be compromised. Instead, we could see the movement of mostly fly-by-night, untrained, uncertified, contractors and tradesmen within the region, creating a legion of dissatisfied and frustrated clients and poor construction standards.

The good, bad, and ugly

The construction sector of every Caribbean country would have good and bad workers at all levels. Here, certification is not a distinguishing factor, as uncertified workers are sometimes more skilled, efficient, and reliable, than their certified counterparts. In Saint Lucia, horror stories persist about poor workmanship and/or dishonest practices by some contractors and tradesmen, who have left in their wake, thousands of dissatisfied clients, either shaking with rage and/or deep in debt. There are stories of: tradesmen turning up for work without tools; materials paid for by clients, being used on other jobs; over-pricing; contractors “cutting corners” and not building to design specifications; walls that are not “set square” etc. Male and female clients alike, have suffered at the hands of these unscrupulous contractors and tradesmen, although women have been particularly disadvantaged. But as we have seen with St. Jude Hospital, and the Millennium Highway projects, in Saint Lucia, Governments too, can be victims of this scourge. From my days as a Labour Inspector, I know that tradesmen also have their own horror stories about dishonest clients.

Still, the clear consensus is that the goods and services delivered by construction workers and companies are not of a consistent, acceptable quality, and are not being efficiently delivered. In my view, this unflattering legacy of low efficiency, low productivity and poor public image are due to: (1) declining skills and competency levels of workers; (2) the absence of an effective and efficient regulatory framework; and (3) the lack of standards of professional practice governing the operations of the industry.

The resilience imperative

Going forward, the degree of national, social, and economic resilience that is achieved will determine the resilience of the CSME. All post-disaster assessments done in the region over at least the past 4 decades have shown that the most damaged buildings were either poorly designed and/or built. Given the pivotal role of the construction sector in building resilient and sustainable development, no effort should be spared in putting it on a firm footing, as doing so will help to reduce the region’s inherent and acquired vulnerability to natural hazards, like earthquakes and extreme weather events. This will enable the region to better withstand and to recover from the shocks caused by such events.

Lack of continuity

Back in 2006, the then SLP administration was on the cusp of implementing a draft of recommendations from a Construction Industry Standardization and Certification Project (CIP), funded by Canada, that promised to address these systemic challenges, in a systematic and comprehensive manner. Having been involved in the public education and outreach component of this initiative, I am aware that it received surprisingly strong support from construction workers and members of the public who attended consultations in various communities. Consequently, I lament the lack of continuity on this initiative by succeeding Governments.

The main outputs of the project  included: (1) a draft construction bill with regulations; (2) standard contract templates and forms of measurement; (3) a framework for a national certification and licensing authority to govern the operations of contractors and tradesmen; (4) strengthened training courses and programmes in construction offered by the SALCC; and (5) 160 contractors, supervisors, and tradesmen trained in basic tendering and contracting, fundamentals of planning and project management, and entrepreneurship.

Essentially, the project sought to respond to the reality that, as construction workers move through the region, some degree of predictability and consistency is needed, at both the demand and supply points of the job market. Employers need the assurance that workers who turn up for job interviews possess the skills and competencies they require. In Saint Lucia, it is not uncommon for bricklayers to present themselves as masons, and for masons to present themselves as builders. However, while a mason may be able to do the job of a bricklayer, the reverse may not be true. Similarly, a mason may not be able to build a house or cut or carve stone and/or granite.

The benefits of classification

A standardized system for classifying construction workers is the most effective way to bring order to this situation. The International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) International Standard Classification of Occupations (ISCO) used to be the “gold standard” for grouping jobs, based on set tasks and duties. However, the ISCO was last updated in 2008. The labour market has changed dramatically since then, and is set to change even further, over the next decade. Fortunately, several countries and intergovernmental organizations have joined the US and the European Union in developing their own classification systems. Should the Caribbean decide to follow suit, it would not be reinventing the wheel. I contend that the region needs its own system, not only to treat with cultural nuances within the construction sector, but also to provide the foundation for much-needed, national and regional labour market information systems, to track the movement of skilled labour across within countries and across the region. Additionally, it will strengthen the design of formal training courses delivered by the education system and the subsequent certification that a student receives.

The need for regulation

Beyond this, the conduct of construction industry workers demands regulation. In some countries, a code of conduct is enforced by a body that is legally empowered to discipline workers who violate the code. Given the scale of violations that are revealed almost every day, serious consideration should be given to the creation of a Court to deal specifically with claims of malpractice by construction industry workers, as well as non-fulfillment of contract by clients. At the risk of being accused of abusing the “literacy” theme, I would strongly recommend that the Labour Department work with the SALCC, the Association of Professional Engineers and other professional bodies within the construction industry, to create a package of learning resources to guide all parties involved in a construction project, in the fundamentals of project management. A focus on the importance of having signed contracts, however brief, will greatly improve client-worker relationships within the sector.

Against this background, I urge the Government of Saint Lucia to consider establishing a Construction Sector Review Commission – along the lines of the Health Review Commission that it established in 2004–to inter alia, reexamine the outcomes and recommendations from the CIP project in the light of emerging realities within the construction sector, and to recommend to Cabinet, a phased implementation plan that will place the sector on a solid footing.

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