In a country where unemployment is high and growing, the arrival of a construction crew is a welcome source of potential income and jobs for poor communities. However, if badly managed, the unintended long-term impacts can damage lives and the community irrevocably.
A recent Construction Industry Development Board report indicates that the construction sector accounts for around 10% of total formal employment (1,1-million jobs) and 16% of informal employment (430 000 jobs).
Where construction projects arrive, opportunity for the community arrives in the form of housing for the construction workers, providing entertainment and increased sales of goods and services. Young men will often abandon their education for a job opportunity and young women are easily led into relationships without a future. When the crew leaves town, it leaves single mothers behind who must rely on government support, young men without basic education and large segments of the community with an income gap and debt they cannot service. This increases the cycle of poverty.
Failing to identify and address the social economic impact prior to construction commencing is irresponsible and can no longer be excused. Furthermore, fragmented ownership of the project exacerbates this challenge and must be addressed by the construction sector, business and government.
Companies that win big projects often subcontract to many specialists to get the job done. They are rarely concerned with where the labour is sourced, how subcontractors ensure the health and welfare of workers, or what policies are put in place to protect communities. With the focus being on profits, there is usually little concern for environmental, socio-economic or other impacts unless these are specified and the project owner is held responsible.
Implementing and enforcing responsible practices can be hard to do as there are few formal policies in place that address these issues. While skills development, Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) and labour legislation may specify requirements for skills development, minimum wages and benefits to protect workers, there are few specifications around safeguarding the communities in which construction companies operate.
Strategies to support socio-economic and labour policies should be mandatory for all stakeholders and, importantly, must be implemented and enforced. Project owners can then ensure that construction contracts are awarded to companies that are compliant with these policies. Furthermore, tenders should incorporate compliance requirements such as local procurement, local employment and local community upliftment programmes. Government also has a role to play by providing the framework for policies and, importantly, enforcing them. They should also assist by supplying agencies with skills to help to implement these policies, and by incentivising construction companies through tax breaks or other measures to put these policies into practice.
What might these policies encompass and how could they be implemented cost-effectively by even smaller, growing companies involved in the construction process?
An effective first step is to visit the area selected for the construction project to understand the socio-economic status of the surrounding communities, the availability of skills and labour, and any special considerations and volatility. It might help to engage the local municipality to understand the needs of the community and potential impacts on available resources such as water, sewage, energy and medical facilities.
Create awareness of the potential long and short-term impact of the project (and the entry of construction workers) on the community. It is also essential to address potential issues with NGOs and government agencies, such as making available birth control and counselling or clinic services.
Introduce financial planning and other forms of educational programmes to help the community manage potential income growth and avoid future unserviceable debt.
Create internal policies that mandate this from the construction companies involved in the project, and put in place an exit strategy. Creating these policies need not be arduous, and with the collaboration of all stakeholders it is possible.
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