State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi holds talks with stakeholders in construction sector on 3 July about their difficulties amid the outbreak of COVID-19. PHOTO: MNA
State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in her capacity as Chairperson of the National-Level Central Committee for Prevention, Control and Treatment of COVID-19 held a videoconference from the Presidential Palace in Nay Pyi Taw this morning at 10:00 am regarding the impact of COVID on the construction sector with stakeholders.
Those who participated in the discussions were Dr Kyaw Lin, Deputy Minister for Construction U Htay Lwin, team leader of the carpentry unit, and U Shein Win, Chairman of the Myanmar Construction Entrepreneurs Federation.
The State Counsellor said yesterday when we are about to discuss the construction sector, all of you must have already heard about the sad news about the Phakant incident. With respect to this incident, she wished to say that this was also something sad for the country. Another thing was the fact that this was related to the difficult livelihood problems being confronted by the people at the basic level of society. For the majority of the Myanmar people, digging for precious stones in the Phakant area is for the purpose of earning a livelihood. Among those who lost their lives in the current incident, the majority are illegal workers.
The fact that these people were digging for precious stones illegally brings out the fact that there is still a difficulty, to a certain extent, to find legal jobs in Myanmar. She added that as far as she was concerned, she placed a high priority to ensure that Myanmar citizens are able to find jobs legally. As the availability of jobs legally was a priority, the construction sector plays a very critical role. The reason why she had to say this was because, among the kinds of jobs related to COVID, the construction sector has special relevance. Construction works cannot be stopped. They were related to the infrastructures of the country.
In addition, in this construction side, there were opportunities to ensure that health rules and regulations were being followed. In some types of jobs, it was not too easy to work with proper spacing among workers. In some enterprises, it was not easy to follow the rules and regulations issued by the Ministry of Health and Sports in a strict manner. However, in the construction sector, it was possible to handle this problem in the most effective manner and that was the reason why restrictions were lifted at a very early stage.
Construction works will always be needed. There were many types of construction works such as roads and bridges at the basic level were very important for the people. The construction of buildings could create jobs for the people; at the same time, she wanted this sector to provide opportunities for further advancement. Among those who have come to participate in the discussions were U Kyaw Lin, deputy minister from the Construction Ministry; U Htay Lwin who is very much involved in construction works; and U Shein Win, an entrepreneur from the construction industry. All need to cooperate. The Union Government has to manage the process so that workers and entrepreneurs cooperate.
The Union Government has to take extra care during the COVID period to make sure that construction works do not grind to a halt; so that construction works continue to run smoothly and also to ensure that the health of workers is not affected. The Government also had to look ahead to the post-COVID period. This is something the government had to be constantly monitoring. The Government machinery was not going to grind to a halt because of the COVID period. It has to keep on running. She added that she wished the government machinery to move towards the positive side as it continued functioning.
Deputy Minister for Construction Dr Kyaw Lin explained that the statistics in 2018 showed that there are 1.37 million people who are relying on construction sector of the country, and the most vulnerable persons in this sector are general workers.
The state construction projects are implemented by capital expenditure and foreign loans. The projects from state budgets were suspended from the end of March to April; however, almost all of these projects have resumed in the first week of May and returned to normality at present.
Meanwhile, the construction project implemented by foreign loans have suffered more impacts from the pandemic, with the delay in the import of machinery and construction materials and postponement in the return for foreign experts; the ADB, World Bank and JICA have offered their loans, and that the projects are expected to resume in 2021 if the cabinet and Pyidaungsu Hluttaw agreed to them.
The deputy minister also explained preventive measures against COVID-19 in the construction projects, and the 50 per cent discount of motorway tolls at 68 bridges and 245 roads from 1 June to 30 November under the CERP and invitation for EOI for the 4 road and bridge projects.
He also requested instalment loans from the back to promote housing demands, to implement public rental housing projects in Nay Pyi Taw, Yangon and Mandalay, and to construct 10,000 units of the double-room apartment with 650 square feet if the government allocates K250 billion from state budget each year.
U Htay Lwin discussed their difficulties in livelihoods during COVID-19 period, adhering to COVID-19 guidelines in workplaces when the projects were resumed; and requirements of land plots for the construction workers as they have to hire huts for living in the areas of squatters.
U Shein Win talked about cooperation of MCEF with the government in the guidelines of CERP, directives of the federations to follow COVID-19 measures at the construction sites, the contribution of K1,000 million through Yangon Region Government. The federation has been working with the Myanmar Licenced Contractors Association since April in construction of 189 units of apartment for retired civil service personnel, offer of employment opportunity to the Myanmar construction workers who returned from foreign countries during the COVID-19 crisis and the establishment of the construction training school in coordination with Japan on 5-acre land of MCEF in Nay Pyi Taw.
He also remarked it is expected to take from 6 to 3 years for the recovery of some businesses and suggested to set up industrial zone projects in creating job opportunities for construction workers.
U Shein Win said that the federation will propose a project for retired civil service personnel to own apartments with the minimal amount of down payment and monthly payment in instalment, and he also proposed a plan to issue new tender rules.
He also requested loans up to 20 to 30 per cent of project value from foreign loans through private banks.
Yangon City has 15,000 units of condo rooms, selling of condo apartments to foreigner contributed 40 per cent, numbering 6,000 rooms, of total sale.
He also expressed thanks to the State Counsellor, the MPs of Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, and the Ministry of Planning, Finance and Industry for reduction of income tax in the construction sector for the trial period in 2019-2020 financial year.
U Shein Win added Myanmar national entrepreneurs faced against the pandemic together with the people; and proposed income tax exemption on the investment of local entrepreneurs who could help in creating employment opportunities. *
And then, the State Counsellor said that there hasn’t been yet a case so far in the construction sector, thus it may be said that the compliance level is high with respect to the obedience of COVID rules and regulations. This needs to be continued. She said that as time went by, being humans, human behaviour was such that people come to be careless in washing hands, wearing masks and social distancing. Especially in the construction sites, workers are in the habit of eating in groups and talking in groups; that was why they had to be constantly reminded not to eat in groups and talk in groups. In other worksites and departments, workers behaved in the same way; at the present time, they should be vigilant about such kinds of behaviours. Although farmers spaced themselves while working on the farm, at lunchtime they tended to eat in groups; this was a good custom but it was important not to behave like this during this time. In places where there are many workers, it could create a big problem if one worker got infected. The infection could spread to a lot of people. That was why everyone should take this very seriously. Regarding job opportunities, as the deputy minister had presented, job creation is very important and she accepted the fact that the construction sector could provide many jobs in Myanmar; that was why the Union Government has been helping the three types of the construction business in the construction sector in many ways; by doing so it would benefit the construction workers as well as people and government employees who wished to live in their own homes; she said that many employees replied that they wanted to live in a house of their own by the time they retired when she asked them what was the most important need for them. She said she did not want them to be in a situation when you don’t know how you were going to live after working hard for your whole life. The Union Government has been building on a priority basis housing for government employees so that they could live in dignity and comfort when they grow old. By implementing such construction projects, it also provides job opportunities for construction workers.
She said she learnt that the reason why some construction works could not be completed as scheduled during the COVID period was that foreign experts could not come. At present, permits were being given little by little in some places where they are needed; it occurred to her that Myanmar needs many skilled workers; it is easy to create jobs in the construction sector; in doing this, she wanted their skills to be upgraded and their skills should be upgraded during the training period. The whole process should be to upgrade the skills and qualifications of Myanmar citizens. To do this, the Union Government should take responsibility for the one part and the entrepreneurs should take responsibility for the other part. She said she wanted the workers to have such kind of mindset.
Construction workers go all over the country to work. When she travelled, she found many relatives from upper Myanmar working in the construction sector everywhere she went. As they were working on roads, buildings and bridges, they greeted her on the way; most of them were from Magway, Natmauk and Yaynan Gyaung; she also found workers from Magway when she was in the Chin state.
Now that all these workers have gone home, with their unfinished work; these works should be restarted again once COVID-19 has been brought under some measure of control.
By fulfilling the construction needs of the local people, workers will get back their jobs and earn income. This is something which needs the collaborative efforts of everyone. There were some projects which were being implemented with international loans. She had always reminded with regard to international loans; these loans need to be paid back; in repaying these loans according to international practice there were two types. Some projects were implemented with grants while others were implemented with loans. When implementing with loans, these need to be repaid at one time or the other; not only to maintain the dignity of the country but also to build up trust economically, it was necessary to repay the loans in a proper and timely manner. Plans are being made to provide debt relief to least developing countries relating to COVID-19; she was thankful for such plans; it is helpful for countries such as Myanmar where the development process was weak; as a rule Myanmar should be able to repay the loans she has taken; it was necessary to work hard to repay these loans; this is why while implementing construction projects, we should bear in mind that by working on one construction project we are actually providing impetus to the country’s economic engine. We should not think in the narrow sense. We should think in such a way that our country’s economic engine would function properly. Thinking in this way, she placed great importance on the construction business.
She said that the facts during the discussion were matched with their statements and that it could be problematic if people couldn’t work two or three days as they were daily wage earners. We need to consider this. In the long term, this is for our people and workers to have economic security; to be rich is the next level; basic security is a necessity; she had always said that the stability of a country depended upon security. Security means physical security and mental security and these two are related; for example, if a person has to worry from where to get the money for school expenses for his children, there is no mental security. This is also related to physical security.
She said that the Union Government would consider these matters. She said special plans have been made to for people who do not have regular income during the COVID period. Everyone knows about this already. After the distribution of basic essential commodities, there has also been financial assistance; this is an effort by the Union Government to give mental security to a certain extent, to people without the regular income to the best of its ability. The most important thing is for the country’s economic and development to be moving in a regular manner and for the people to ultimately have sufficiency economically as well as physically.
U Htay Lwin talked about vocational education in his discussions. The main activity at “La Yaung Taw” is agriculture; Agriculture does not mean only growing crops but also includes gardening and growing flowers; in a city like Yangon, trees are being planted on the roadsides but they are not beautiful and not too pleasant to look at; this is because of lack of knowledge in agricultural techniques; knowledge of gardening is not only how to grow a big tree from a small tree but also to know the shape, how to make it last longer, which type of tree would be best suited, for the roadside the tree should look nice and give shade, it should not obstruct the cars, and to be able to figure out all these things according to the need. When growing flowers, we need to know which flower should be planted in which particular spot; not only vegetables, to make our environment beautiful we need flowers also; if we have a beautiful environment it gives us tranquillity and happiness. This is also important.
She said she wanted to encourage the development of vocational schools. I want vocational education to become a well-developed sector in Myanmar. In some of the most developed countries in the world, vocational education is on par with university education. People regard graduates from vocational schools on the same level as university graduates and other professionals from relevant disciplines. At every opportunity, she has recounted this matter; in the whole world Switzerland has one of the best vocational education systems; this country although small is one of the richest in the world; in her education system, vocational education is very successful; just as there are students who go to university, there are also those who go to vocational schools; among these students, there is no attempt to discriminate who is better and who is not.
The State Counsellor said she was able to meet a student from a vocational education and training (VET) centre upon request during her visit to Switzerland. She said she had met four students from four different VET centres and admired this particular student. When she asked the student why they chose to learn carpentry she replied that although she wanted to be a musician when she was young, she discovered she did not have the talent for it when she became 10 to 11 years old.
The State Counsellor said this student was quite mature as she was aware of herself at a young age. She said the student loved music and decided to learn basic carpentry to become one of the best violin makers in the world so that she may remain in the music industry.
The State Counsellor said she admired the student’s answer as it showed her wisdom and resolve. The student was able to rationalize the possibility of a situation like an adult and make her own choice. She had the confidence to start learning carpentry and aim to become a professional maker of world-class instruments.
We are trying to increase the number of vocational training centres like this in our country as well, said the State Counsellor. She said it takes time to set up a school as it requires careful planning including the choice of a suitable location and hiring educators. She said she will always remember the idea that a carpenter can become a world-famous musical instrument maker.
The State Counsellor said she wishes to create an education system that offers numerous opportunities for development and also currently wishes to provide regular income and social security for workers without the regular income. She said the Union Government is doing its best to achieve this goal but it also requires the participation of private businesses as well.
The State Counsellor said the business side had submitted matters relating to tenders, taxation, loans, and rules, regulations and laws concerning them and the Union Government will consider all the matters it can assist with. She said she holds a deep regard for everything discussed during the one hour of video conferencing. She said the discussions will be handed over to relevant departments so that they may discuss it in greater detail, find ways to implement national development and offer assistance.
She said an important issued raised at the meeting was the livelihood and current lack of accommodation for workers which needs to be addressed by both businesses and the Union Government. The other issue was the educational needs of the workers’ children, which the State Counsellor points out is paramount to the future of the nation. She said we need to consider how best to fulfil the education requirements of children of all citizens. She said there shouldn’t be a situation where financial difficulties halt progress in education.
The State Counsellor said they have to make the education system comply with the actual requirements of the nation and highlighted the importance of vocational education. She said it is the requirement of the modern age as the time when having a university degree corresponded to a person’s level of education is over. She said most economically advanced nations are facing numerous challenges because of their emphasis on academic education and most university degrees are becoming less relevant with the demands of the present age.
She added that developed countries are now aiming towards vocational education and training but are not finding it easy without the proper foundations. She said the general public in those countries believe academic degrees reflect how educated, and capable, a person is; then it would be quite difficult to implement and develop a vocational education system.
The State Counsellor said Myanmar has better opportunities in this respect as the people practically desire vocational education. She said the fact that youths and parents are both steering towards wanting vocational education is a good sign for the nation and the Union Government will do its best to provide assistance.
The State Counsellor said people who have to live on daily wages face serious difficulties if work stops for 2 to 3 days and they have to consider the economic and personal income security of every citizen. She said thinking of methods to provide sources of regular income to people without it is more important as providing with assistance is a form of treatment when prevention is a better choice.
The State Counsellor said the nation has achieved a level of success in handling the spread of COVID-19 as they placed great emphasis on prevention measures early on. She said the Ministry of Health and Sports took the first steps towards prevention of the disease on 4 January and Myanmar can be said to be one of the earliest countries to do so. She said this is the reason the disease is under control and will have to remain so in the future.
She added that they have to take preventive measures now to prevent possible setbacks when attempting to resolve the safety and needs of the public. She said preventing issues from arising is better than resolving them later. She said the Union Government and businesses should consider how to prevent the loss of regular income than only providing assistance when a person no longer has it.
The State Counsellor called on workers to voice their opinions confidently and said expanding more vocational training centres falls in line with the nation’s ambitions and policy, which they are aiming to implement swiftly.
The State Counsellor then moved on to the end of her speech. She said the construction industry is important for the nation in many forms and so is communication. She said a nation’s economy can only develop if it possesses a good communication system. She said there needs to be a sense of closeness between people so that there is unity among all citizens. She said some villages are not very familiar with each other as they are too far apart and lack communication.
The State Counsellor said better communication will lead to increased cooperation among people. She said the development of basic infrastructure will also aid national development. She said it is important for people to be able to have regular meals, clothe themselves with dignity, and possess their own safe housing that compliments their self-confidence. She thanked everyone for contributing to the success of the construction industry and then wished them all good health. —MNA (Translated by Kyaw Myaing)