Construction sector seeks govt subsidy to test foreign workers

One at a time: A foreign worker taking a swab test in Taman Megah, Petaling Jaya, as others wait for their turn. — ART CHEN/The Star

PETALING JAYA: Acknowledging that fortnightly testing of foreign construction workers is a good idea, the industry wants the government to help defray costs estimated at over RM500mil.

The Master Builders Association Malaysia (MBAM) said routine mass testing will involve substantial costs which would be “too much to bear”.

“At the moment, contractors are absorbing all additional SOP (standard operating procedure) compliance costs that were not factored in earlier.

“With such a substantial amount to pay, the industry really hopes the government will look into providing a full subsidy to ease the construction industry’s burden, ” it said, adding that it supports fortnightly testing if subsidised.

Estimating that about 430,000 registered foreign workers needed to be screened, MBAM said the market rate for a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test ranged from RM210 to RM350 per person, while the antigen rapid test kit (RTK-Ag) was priced between RM130 and RM180 depending on location.

“The price also depends on the type of vendor and services provided, as well as the test quantities.

“In December, MBAM came up with a special screening package at a competitive rate for members, with appointed vendors able to provide on-site screening, ” the body said in a recent statement.

Checks by The Star in December found that charges for RTK-Ag testing under the Socso scheme ranged from RM40 to RM100, depending on the numbers being tested.

Some clinics are known to quote up to RM200 for those not covered under the Socso scheme.

If all 430,000 workers take the RTK-Ag test at RM100 each fortnightly for the next six months, or 12 times in total, the sum will easily exceed RM516mil.

PCR is the gold standard for confirmation of a positive case, while RTK-Ag provides faster confirmation at a lower cost, though this rapid test may be more biased towards providing false negatives.

As such, results have to be interpreted with caution so as not to lend a false sense of security.

“Given the challenging present environment, it is not fair to pass on the costs for foreign workers’ quarantine, screening and medical treatment wholly to contractors as construction companies are also facing an increasing financial burden such as rising material prices, SOP compliance costs and cash flow issues.

“The government should look into providing a full subsidy to ease the industry’s burden and encourage mass screening using affordable test kits, ” said MBAM, which recently attended a dialogue with the Works Ministry and Construction Industry Development Board.

In a set of FAQs on Jan 15, the ministry, while acknowledging the need for testing, stopped short of prescribing scheduled routine testing, which is a regime where groups of workers are rostered for Covid-19 testing regardless of whether they show symptoms.

The premise behind testing every two weeks is based on the incubation period of Covid-19 – the time between exposure to the virus and the onset of symptoms, which averages five to six days and lasts up to 14 days.

Dr S. Gayathrie, MMC Gamuda KVMRT’s medical services manager tasked with overseeing the testing of 16,000 workers in the consortium building the second MRT line, also known as the Putrajaya Line, said: “When you test someone close to the end of the 14-day mark, you can catch those who are already suffering from Covid-19, even if the person tests negative at the start or middle of the fortnightly cycle.”

Fortnightly testing for foreign construction workers has been practised in Singapore since August last year, with the directive covering migrant construction workers residing in purpose-built and factory-converted dormitories, construction temporary quarters, temporary occupational licence premises and temporary living quarters.

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