Appropriate living conditions are essential for the migrant workers

A health worker collecting samples for Covid-19 testing from a foreign worker at a wet market in Kuala Lumpur on May 5. — AP

Malaysians recently have been worried by news of a spike in Covid-19 infections among foreign workers. The situation is similar to what happened in Singapore with the number of local cases going down and a spike in new cases appearing among foreign workers. Clusters of Covid-19 infections have been detected at three construction sites and three immigration depots. More than 4,000 undocumented immigrants have been detained at these depots for not possessing valid travel and work documents.

As the number of cases have increased, some have started to blame foreign workers for the spread of the disease – but is it justifiable to do so?

Let us first look at the factors that work against efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus. According to the Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, the main factors are the workers’ crowded living environment and poor hygiene practices. But migrant workers should not be the only ones blamed for such conditions. Aside from probably being uneducated about hygiene, it is very likely that the workers have no choice about living in crowded conditions because that is all they can afford on their low wages or because those are the accommodations that they have been provided by their employers.

Employers who are responsible for this should also bear some of the responsibility. The implementation of standard operating procedures (SOPs) to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 should not only be limited to worksites.

Dr Noor Hisham has called on employers to ensure that physical distancing measures at workers’ accommodations are taken seriously by having beds at least 1m to 2m apart, enough space so they can avoid preparing and consuming food in large groups, and ensuring that toilets and surrounding areas are clean and sanitised.

As stated in the Workers’ Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act (Amended 2019) – scheduled to have taken effect on June 1, 2020, in Peninsular Malaysia and Labuan – one of the duties and responsibilities of an employer associated with the current situation is laid out under Section 24J: (f) To take preventive measures to contain the spread of infectious diseases as ordered by the Medical Officer of Health in accordance with relevant written laws, the employer shall, at his own expense, make arrangements as ordered by the Medical Officer of Health so that all or any of the employees be given immunisation against any infectious disease. Another sub-section of Section 24J that is closely related is (b) to take necessary preventive measures to ensure employees’ safety and well-being. So it is actually written into law that it is the employers’ obligation to take action to curb the spread of Covid-19 among their foreign workers.

The right action has been pursued by making it compulsory for foreign workers in all sectors to undergo Covid-19 screening after the rise in the number of cases at construction sites. But the screening has to go along with preventive measures that ensure the workers have appropriate accommodations where they can maintain physical distancing.

On May 28, 2020, Human Resources Minister Datuk Seri M. Saravanan announced that the government is giving employers a grace period of three months, until Aug 31, to comply with the amendments to the Workers’ Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act. However, the deadly nature of the pandemic that could worsen current conditions quickly should be the key reason for employers to not delay complying with the Act. The amendments were passed in Parliament in July 2019, then gazetted in September 2019, so the duration since then should have provided sufficient time for employers. Delaying compliance would be irresponsible, as the spread of Covid-19 places Malaysian citizens at risk along with foreign workers.

Furthermore, as most of the foreign workers are hired for “3D jobs” (dangerous, dirty and difficult), they are accustomed to and accepting of unhygienic surroundings. So awareness about the severity of the pandemic and the need for hygiene to stop the spread of the virus needs to be instilled by educating them on SOPs at worksites and their accommodations.

Although we hope this spike of Covid-19 cases in Malaysia will not be as bad as Singapore’s, as noted by Universiti Malaya public health specialist Dr Rafdzah Ahmad Zaki, prompt measures must be taken because foreign workers make up 15% to 30% of Malaysia’s labour force. Singapore should be a wake-up call for Malaysia, and we can learn lessons from the experience there. The enforcement of the amended Act should not be delayed as it is not only important to prevent the virus spreading widely but also for the well-being of the workers.


Research Analyst, Emir Research

Note: Emir Research is a think tank focused on research-based policy recommendations

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