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Coronavirus hammers building sector as workers get trapped in their homes

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Construction companies have struggled as many of its workers have been unable to go to work as public transportation remains limited under lockdown. — PHILIPPINE STAR/MICHAEL VARCAS

By Denise A. Valdez, Senior Reporter

RANDIE O. GALUPO, 37, has been trying to work on the side since mid-March after a building company where he used to work as a mason was shut down amid a coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t have a choice but to leave everything to chance,” he said by telephone when asked about the risk of getting the virus. “If I’m jobless, there will be no food on the table.”

BW Bullseye 2020-focusPresident Rodrigo R. Duterte locked down the entire Luzon island in mid-March, suspending work, classes and public transportation to contain the pandemic that has sickened about 127,000 and killed more than 2,200 people in the Philippines.

He has vowed to continue his government’s “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program to stimulate an economy that has entered a recession after shrinking by 16.5% in the second quarter.

But construction companies continue to struggle as a number of workers have been unable to return to work because public transportation remained constricted.

EEI Corp., one of the country’s biggest construction companies that employs more than 24,000 workers, has resumed operations but with limited manpower.

“Some of our workers who went back to the provinces are still unable to return due to travel restrictions,” the company said in an e-mailed reply to questions last month.

“EEI remains cautious with its outlook, and keeps a keen eye toward possible changes that this crisis could further usher in not only for our business but for the economy as a whole,” it added.

Roland C. Roldan, 39, remained jobless because travel to the construction site that’s 25 kilometers away from his home in Novaliches City remained difficult, he said by telephone.

“I was forced to find jobs closer to home,” he said in Filipino. Medical requirements have also become stricter, with some companies requiring applicants to submit a certification that they are coronavirus-free, he added.

Mr. Roldan said he would rather spend the P2,000 on food than on getting tested. “During these times, you’d rather prioritize feeding your family.”

Roel D. Romano, a 48-year-old construction worker in the financial district of Makati City, said work protocols have become harsher. Strict social distancing is enforced at their site and they must submit a health declaration form daily.

“From 50 workers working at the same time before the pandemic, that’s down to eight,” he said in a Messenger chat.

Mr. Romano, who is from Binangonan in Rizal province, is one of the lucky ones because his company, Ethan International Corp. spent for their tests and provides transportation to and from the job site.

There was a time when he got worried about getting infected after his boss tested positive for the virus.

‘CHALLENGING’
“You can’t help but worry,” he said. “When I talked to my boss, I kept my distance although he has since recovered.”

About 400 workers at a building site in Taguig City had tested positive for the coronavirus last month, forcing the local government to declare a localized lockdown. All the workers have since recovered, according to the mayor.

The construction sector declined by 33.5% in the second quarter even after it was allowed to reopen in mid-May. The impact may be far worse, said Michael L. Ricafort, chief economist at Rizal Commercial Banking Corp.

“Construction accounts for at least 6% of Philippine gross domestic product, but its contribution to the economy could be more if the supply/value chain is considered,” he said in an e-mail last month.

Related sectors such as property and building suppliers have also been affected by the slowdown, Mr. Ricafort said.

The building industry faces another uphill battle after Mr. Duterte put Metro Manila and nearby provinces back under a strict lockdown amid surging infections. The modified enhanced community quarantine will last until Aug. 18.

“The stricter quarantine and resulting slowdown in construction, manufacturing, imports and overall business/economic activities could result in weaker GDP data for this quarter,” Mr. Ricafort said.

The level of decline would depend on the length of the strict lockdown “and ultimately how the spike in new COVID-19 cases would be managed,” he added.

D.M. Wenceslao & Associates, Inc. (DMW), which developed Aseana City along Manila Bay, has been trying to resume operations with a limited capacity.

“The year 2020 is definitely challenging,” DMW Chief Executive Officer Delfin Angelo C. Wenceslao said in a July 16 e-mail. “Absent a vaccine, all businesses are in a constant state of pivot and everyone is just trying to ride the pandemic out,” he added.

Aboitiz Construction, Inc. (ACI), which has three projects in Luzon affected by the lockdown, is also careful about its projections because it’s operating with reduced manpower.

“In the short and medium terms, a number of projects have been either deferred, delayed or canceled,” Aboitiz Construction President and Chief Executive Officer Alberto A. Ignacio, Jr. said in a July 16 e-mail.

The company expects revenue and profit to shrink this year until 2021.





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