The right to decent housing


A HOTBED for infectious diseases. That’s how Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah described the congested living conditions of foreign workers in Malaysia.

The high number of Covid-19 infections at immigration detention centres and the discovery of outbreak clusters at construction sites and places where foreigners make up the majority of workers, have confirmed that these are the major breeding grounds of the deadly virus, which has killed 117 and infected more than 8,000 people in the country.

Among the lessons that Malaysia has learned from the pandemic is that we have to look at different ways of doing the usual things and one of the urgent matters to resolve is the management of the country’s migrant workers.

How many foreign workers, registered or otherwise, do we have now? No one knows, because the number remains a guesstimate.

In its report “Malaysia: Estimating the Number of Foreign Workers” last year, the World Bank cited the Home Ministry in stating that four out of 10 foreign workers were “irregular”, based on its enforcement and amnesty programmes.

The report implied that in 2017, there were 1.2 million illegal foreign workers out of the total of three million foreign workers in the country.

“None of these figures are backed up by rigorous analytical methods, except the estimate by the Institute of Labour Market Information and Analysis, which estimates the total foreign worker population to be 3.5 million using foreign worker-linked insurance data,” the report noted.

Today, it is believed that the number of foreign workers – both legal and illegal – may well be above six million.

It is a reflection of the Federal Government’s policy failures relating to migrant workers and a stark reminder of the country’s overdependence on low-cost labour to sustain the oil palm and manufacturing industries without giving due regard for alternative strategies and the basic human rights of migrant workers.

In April, while the number of Covid-19 cases rose significantly, the Malaysian Employers Federation assessed the number of illegal foreign workers to be at 3.3 million, compared with 2.2 million registered foreign workers. Some 180,000 refugees also added to the employment equation.

MEF executive director Datuk Shamsuddin Bardan noted that although a “conservative estimate” put the number of illegal foreigners in the country as the same as documented workers, it was assumed that there were about 1.5 illegal workers for each legal one.

Most of them have 3D (dirty, dangerous, difficult/demeaning) jobs avoided by Malaysians.

It has been estimated that 36% are in the manufacturing sector while 19% are in construction. They are also in plantations (15%), services (14%) and other agricultural activities (9%), while 7% are domestic helpers.

Compared with Thailand and Singapore, Malaysia has the highest number of foreign workers, but unlike our closest neighbours, we have millions of migrant workers in both urban areas – living in shophouses converted into dormitories and in low-cost flats – and rural areas, often in ramshackle lodgings near or on plantations and farms.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, there were already many cases of tuberculosis, malaria, filariasis, hepatitis B, leprosy and even sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis and HIV, due to gaps in health screening before their arrivals and as a result of living in confined, unhygienic shelters.

It’s better late than never but positive changes are under way courtesy of recent amendments to the Workers’ Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act 1990.

The Bill was passed by the Dewan Rakyat in July 2019. The amendments were gazetted a month later and came into force on June 1.

On May 27, the Human Resources Ministry said employers had been given three months’ grace – or until Aug 31 – to meet the stringent requirements.

The amended law, to be enforced on Sept 1, would make sure that minimum standards are extended to all sectors providing housing to foreign workers. Before the changes, this only applied to mine workers and workers in plantations that were at least eight hectares in size.

The law has also enhanced the 2018 Labour Department’s foreign workers’ housing guidelines to employers to ensure minimum standard living space, basic amenities, safety and hygiene.

The amended Act, however, applies only to Peninsular Malaysia and Labuan. It was reported that Sabah and Sarawak had agreed to include similar provisions in their respective labour ordinances.

From Sept 1, employers will be compelled to provide decent accommodation for workers and segregate housing based on gender.

They also need to ensure employees’ safety and well-being, fire safety and electrical wiring systems, and medical assistance whenever needed.

While they can collect rent from workers through salary deductions, they are also liable to be charged for breaches of the Act and can be fined up to RM50,000.

The question being asked now is: Can employers meet the stipulated conditions for foreign workers by Sept 1? As expected, the MEF has sought more time – at least six months – to comply with the requirements.

But why should there be further delays when employers could take advantage of not-so-new technologies such as the industrialised building system (IBS) or the offsite manufacturing system (OSM), to speed up housing construction?

The use of “prefabrication” of various parts of a building – beams, walls, doors, windows, and even bathrooms – in factories before assembling them at the needed site, can be traced to the 1900s. It was used to build houses quickly after World War II to meet the acute shortage after the wanton destruction on both sides.

Today, with high-tech robotics and better precast materials, a wide range of projects – from houses and condominiums to hotels and airports – have been built in countries such as the US, Australia, Japan, Singapore and even in Malaysia.

Workers’ housing, whether dormitories or one-stop immigrant housing centres, can be erected rapidly. In addition to reducing time, IBS and OSM can reduce costs with less wastage and ensure higher standards and quality.

Media consultant M. Veera Pandiyan likes this quote by novelist Gregory Maguire: Under every roof, a story, just as behind every brow, a history. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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