We have handed our construction industry to the Chinese — Williams

Observer writer

Sunday, January 20, 2019

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Leading Jamaican architect Evan Williams is bemoaning the demise of the Jamaican construction and architectural industry as a result of major projects being awarded to Chinese firms.

Williams recently oversaw the construction and design of the extended-stay 48-room business hotel, the R, on Renfrew Road in Kingston, which came in at a cost of US$6.5 million. The R is now open for business with a grand opening ceremony pencilled in for mid-March.

Williams, who heads the architectural firm Design Collaborative, argued that Jamaica has given its construction industry over to the Chinese with local tradesmen and craftsmen left out in the cold.

“The Jamaican construction industry is coming under tremendous pressure with many of our building professionals having to leave the country. On this project, which took two and a half years to complete, many of the Jamaican professionals left. Why? Because we have given our construction industry to the Chinese,” Williams told the Jamaica Observer.

“The Chinese come in and do not have to subscribe to the same sort of scrutiny that our master builders are subjected to. The Chinese construction companies ignore Jamaican expertise, and guess what, they don't pay the same taxes and duties and can import whatever and whenever they want,” said Williams.

In a career spanning 50 years, Williams' architectural skills have been engaged on some of Jamaica's major hotel projects including Sandals, Couples, the Pegasus, Half Moon, and Round Hill.

He applauds the recent decision taken by the Government to increase the number of floors on buildings and to look up to the skyline rather than utilise scarce land for commercial activity.

“To develop an urban centre like New Kingston, you have to go up and down, not across. At the R we have 10,000 feet below ground,” he said. “We cannot keep taking away land that people can live on to do commercial activity. That will cost us in the long run.”

Williams' sentiments on the dominance of the Chinese on construction projects in Jamaica closely resembles those of another prominent Jamaican architect, Clifton Yap.

Yap believes that Jamaican construction professionals, architects, and engineers, should be given a chance to do government projects.

Former master builder Leroy Brown, who worked with Kier and is now working on projects in Qatar, said: “It's a shame and very sad to see projects like GraceKennedy's downtown headquarters and the new offices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade go to the Chinese and not local firms. We have firms and professionals with so much ability and talent in Jamaica and they are being overlooked. It really is an indictment of the mindset that currently prevails. The Matalons could have done a good job on the Grace building.

“What a message it would have sent if the Government had awarded the contract for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building to a Jamaican company. Sir Charles Barry built the British Houses of Parliament, Sir Christopher Wren built St Paul's Cathedral and both were Brits. Ah well, at least a West Indian, Dr William Thornton, designed the US Capitol building.”

Meanwhile, Williams, noted that over the last 10 years there has been a decline of both Jamaica's construction and architectural industries.

“I am not a politician, but I suppose there are political reasons why foreigners gain superiority over locals when it comes to the construction industry. Jamaicans do as good if not better work than the foreigners that come here. You take, for example, hotels that are owned by non-Jamaicans. How many of them are built and designed by Jamaicans? I would say zero,” Williams said.

“Most of them bring in their own professionals and expertise and leave the Jamaicans out in the cold. Now, make no mistake, if I am going to spend US$30 million to US$40 million to build a 200-room hotel and I don't know the quality of the expertise that exists here, then I would want the opportunity to bring in my own skilled professionals. I have no problem with that, but there must be a trade-off, which sees some local input,” said Williams.

Adding to his point, he said that his career has taken him to many countries and it was generally understood that he would be allowed to work there, but he must contribute something to the country.

“Half the staff on these projects should be local, but here in Jamaica it doesn't work like that. The foreigners bring in everything and ignore local expertise and product. The Chinese workers are not even paid in Jamaican dollars. The money is sent back to China. What shocked me on the R Hotel project was that the labour was supposed to be 60 per cent Jamaican and 40 per cent Chinese, but that never happened. I discovered that many of them were not even Chinese but Vietnamese,” Williams said.

However, he made it clear that the Chinese firms have done a good job with the roadworks and highways.

“The Chinese are fantastic road builders and are excellent at pouring concrete, but I do have a serious problem with their quality of detailing and finishing,'' he added.

Turning to the state of hotel building in Jamaica today, Williams pointed out that the country's infrastructure and environmental concerns were not being given due attention.

“When I started out, a 100-room hotel was a staggering feat in Jamaica. Today you have 600-plus-room hotels and the impact on our local infrastructure is mind-boggling. There is no concern for the environment, housing needs and community development.

“Twenty years ago staff got to know the guests, but with a hotel of 500 rooms carrying a staff of 1,000, how does the staff effectively interact with the guest and provide the very best service and attention — it's virtually impossible.

“Yes, you build these mega hotels with 500-plus-rooms, but where does the staff to service these hotels live? There is no adequate provision made for them. Why do you think there are so many slums around Ocho Rios, Montego Bay, and Negril? These hotels are being built by these foreign entities and no consideration is given to the workers and then people wonder why slums exist,” he said.

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