It’s been just about two months since Government restricted all economic activity to essential operations and from Thursday, manufacturing and construction will slowly start emerging from lockdown.
Terrence Rambharath, managing director of Top Mark Ltd, a contractor specialising in finishings, is happy that he and his employees will finally be able to go back out to work.
“It’s been a challenging eight weeks. We’ve had to keep people paid all the while not earning any revenue.
“Our employees have been with us for 20 years, so managers took a decision early to make the sacrifice to keep our operational staff paid,” he told Newsday.
His company will reopen on Friday, and in the meantime, it will be finalising an in-house covid19 protocol for workers to adhere to when they return.
“You know what they say, it’s the new normal. (In finishing) we’re a little more technical than concrete work – we work in smaller, often enclosed spaces with it air conditioning or carpeting, so it’s a peculiar set of circumstances. Getting people familiar with new rules and personal protective wear will take some time. It’s already difficult getting people accustomed to masks.”
Construction hit hard
Construction has been one of the hardest-hit sectors. The sector already had a higher unemployment rate than the national average (6.75 per cent vs 3.8 per cent in 2018, according to the 2019 Review of the Economy/Central Statistical Office). The sector also employs a significant portion of unskilled labour.
Since the lockdown, Contractors’ Association (TTCA) president Glenn Mahabirsingh estimated that some 17 per cent of the country’s workforce was employed in construction and the majority – the labourers – had to be sent home, at least temporarily.
Contractors also had to accrue additional costs during this time including material attrition from being exposed to the weather, security to guard inactive sites, as well as just general remobilisation after decommissioning equipment.
Mahabirsingh said, “Most of these costs would have been negotiated (with clients) in good faith so we hope there won’t be any (profiteering) because we understand this was caused by a virus and couldn’t be helped. The sector was pleased that reopening was moved ahead to May 21 instead of the initial May 26 date given by the government for phase two of its reopening rollout.
“We see this as a positive move to allow construction to maximise the balance of the dry season.”
Contractors will, however, have to adapt to new methods of operation, including social distancing on site.
“We are grateful that we are back to work and remember that continued economic activity is dependent on covid19 protocols designed to keep us safe. The new symbol for construction will be a mask and a hard hat.”
Manufacturers ready to work
Following the Prime Minister’s announcement on Saturday allowing more sectors back to work, section 3, part 2: (ao) to (at) of the revised public health ordinance now says manufacturing, construction, vehicle maintenance and auto part sales and services, laundry and dry cleaning, and those authorised by the Minister of Health, can resume services.
Ryan Lewis, TT Manufacturers’ Association (TTMA) vice president and director at Label House, noted that the label division of his company was deemed essential because it supplies labels to the food and beverage and pharmaceutical industries. The company has been working with a skeleton staff and installed social distancing and other health and safety protocols that it intends to continue even after the economy reopens.
Even though the company will be allowed to bring in more staff based on production and demand, the current protocols will remain in place at least six months, he said. Since the lockdown the company has seen a decline in business, he added, and while he expects to see an increase in production now that restrictions have eased, it “certainly won’t be to pro-covid19 levels and not overnight, obviously. Maybe in June.”
There about 1,000 manufacturing companies in TT and just over a quarter were classified as essential services. Out of the 52,000 people employed in the sector, 30 per cent have been on call as essential. The TTMA argued last week that since these companies have proved the sector can manage its covid19 risk they should be allowed to reopen, at the risk of TT losing its market share in its export markets. Year-on-year, export figures for TT from March 28 to April 29 fell by an alarming 66 per cent, the association said, or just over $283 million. As of April 14, non-essential businesses have export orders valued at about $103 million.
TTMA: Workers being kept safe
Kaleidoscope CEO Dale Parson, a TTMA director, said that when his company was granted leave as an essential service it submitted its internal protocols to the Ministry of Health, some of which the ministry used as part of its general guidelines for manufacturers. The company rostered staff and in certain departments, ensured there were five or fewer people at any one time in any room.
Parson said, “We had to make sure people were at least six to eight feet apart, so we physically measured it out.”
The company did not lay off any of its staff, but did request people take vacation during the period. It also installed sinks throughout the compound, bought copious amounts of hand sanitiser, face masks and temperature guns, and posted signs and banners across the compound.
And despite the new measures, Parson said, the company actually became more efficient – not less. “Because people have to work fewer hours because of rostering, they’ve become more (productive) about getting work done in time. We’re considering extending the system,” he said. Even though restrictions have relaxed, he said the company will likely keep some of the rules, including work from home. To monitor workers, employees working from home have to fill out a time-sheet for hours worked. “Staff have been generally complying (to the regulations),” he said.
He said revenue and production had dropped in April to a little over 40 per cent, but has been incrementally increasing, back to 60-65 per cent in May, and the expectation of 75-80 per cent in June and back to 100 per cent in July. “That’s only because demand isn’t there,” he said.
“Manufacturers and contractors can be essential but even though we might be essential and go back to work, the demand is not there (in the domestic and export market). Even if we wanted to ramp up production we would just have an oversupply So, the rostering system is working for us. We can fulfil all demand right now because it’s not 100 per cent. Even if we are ready to go to 100 the demand is not there. So we might be ready and efficient and essential, but the rest of the world is not, so we have to wait on the rest of the world.”