THERE’S an apt idiom for our seemingly never-ending battle against Covid-19, especially on infections spreading among foreign workers: A stitch in time saves nine. It means it is better to fix a problem when it is small instead of waiting until it becomes a much bigger issue.
Daily numbers of Covid-19 infections have reached quadruple digits, increasing to a total of 56,659 with 337 deaths as of Nov 23.
Even from as early as at the end of May, when there were just 7,762 Covid-19 cases in the country, foreign workers had made up 78% of the infected.
At that time, Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said this was because of the confined and crowded spaces they lived in, where they were not able to practise physical distancing.
He raised the need to resolve the problem of workers’ accommodation quickly to curb the spread of infections.
There was also a solution in place then: the Workers’ Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act 1990, which is aimed at improving the living conditions of migrant workers. It was passed by the Dewan Rakyat in July last year and the amendments were gazetted a month later.
The amended law ensures that minimum standards are extended to all sectors that use foreign workers; before, it only applied to mine workers and workers on plantations that were at least 8ha in size.
It also improved the Labour Department’s 2018 foreign workers’ housing guidelines for employers to ensure minimum standards in living spaces, basic amenities, safety and hygiene.
Under the law, employers are compelled to provide decent accommodation for workers and segregate housing according to gender.
They also need to ensure employees’ safety and well-being, the safety of electrical wiring systems, and provide medical assistance whenever needed.
Employers who breach the rules are liable to be charged for breaches of the Act and can be fined up to RM50,000 for each offence.
The Act was supposed to come into force on June 1 but on May 27, the Human Resources Ministry gave employers a grace period of three months – until Aug 31 – to meet the stringent requirements.
As soon as the deadline was announced, the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) asked for more time – at least six months – to comply with the requirements.
But a week into September, it sought another extension, this time for a year. Ironically, the steep rise in the number of foreign workers afflicted by Covid-19 was given as the excuse to delay the implementation of the law.
In asking for enforcement to be delayed by a year, Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers president Tan Sri Soh Thian Lai said that the RM50,000 fine is too drastic due to the weakened economy, adding that this would severely hamper business revival initiatives of most industries.
Associations representing construction contractors and restaurant owners also joined the chorus of asking for more time to comply with the Act.
MEF executive director Datuk Shamsuddin Bardan said at least 12 months are needed to guide employers, urging the government “not to put pressure” on them during this “trying period”.
In the meantime, the number of cases involving foreign workers in factories, construction sites and, to a lesser extent, food outlets, have been growing exponentially.
With 2.2 million documented foreign workers in the country and an estimated 1.5 illegal migrant workers for each registered one, the issue of workers’ housing is crucial in Malaysia’s fight against Covid-19.
The delay by the industries relying on foreign labour to bite the bullet and address the problem has resulted in the country paying a high price.
With an estimated 36% of documented foreign workers in the manufacturing sector, 24% in agriculture and 19% in construction, the situation can only get worse.
The government has now made it mandatory for all migrant workers in Selangor, Negri Sembilan, Penang, Sabah (including the federal territory of Labuan) and Kuala Lumpur to be tested for Covid-19 regardless of the sectors involved.
It is also studying the possibility of providing dormitories for foreign workers to stop the spread of Covid-19 transmission at factories and construction sites, as announced by Federal Territories Minister Tan Sri Annuar Musa last week.
According to him, the ministry is discussing this with several other ministries and the Malaysian Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB).
This is a good opportunity for CIDB to promote the use of new methods and improve productivity in response to the urgent need that such housing meets Covid-19 prevention specifications.
The latest industrial building technology or prefabrication can deliver high-quality projects with lower costs and quicker delivery.
These technologies, which are available in Malaysia, can enable faster construction turnaround and shorten the project schedule by up to 25%, compared with conventional methods of building frames, brickwork and plaster.
Precast technology involves parts of the structure being manufactured on-site or elsewhere in a controlled environment and then assembled by hoisting them into place with cranes.
This can also reduce the number of on-site construction workers by up to 40%, in addition to reducing waste and disposal costs for builders.
Instead of delaying the enforcement of the Workers’ Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act, the government should push for its implementation as soon as possible and encourage the use of efficient building technologies for workers’ dormitories.
Media consultant M. Veera Pandiyan likes this quote by Nelson Mandela: To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.
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