The storm before the calm


Mass arrest of illegal workers on May 20, 2020. An amnesty could encourage such workers to come forward to be tested. Without it, fear will prevent participation and we will run the risk of overcrowding detention centres because of mass arrests, potentially generating another Covid-19 outbreak hotspot. — SHAARI CHEMAT/The Star

On April 1, 2020, Singapore reported 10 infections among migrant workers living in dormitories. By April 16, 2020, this figure had grown to almost 3,000. This was a wake-up call not only for Singapore but also for us in Malaysia.

One case involving a factory worker in Malaysia detected on Nov 4, 2020, led to a cluster of 73 others by Nov 7, 58 of whom are migrant workers. By Nov 23, over 2,000 individuals could be traced to this cluster, of whom 97% are factory workers, mostly migrants. Could this shocking figure be attributed to delayed responses in testing?

But Malaysia’s testing policy has been solid and adheres to the World Health Organisation’s recommendations. Malaysia conducts approximately 74 tests per 1,000 people – more than countries like South Korea. Less than 2% of those tested are positive, which is good when compared with global norms. Even in May when the number of cases was still low, migrant workers from all sectors were required to undergo Covid-19 testing paid for by their employers. The question now is whether industries have adhered to this requirement.

The drastic spike in Covid-19 cases among migrant workers in Malaysia is not the result of failures in testing; rather, it has to do with how we, as a nation, offer protection to those who are least able to protect themselves, those who live on the margins of our society but are present all the way across it. This is a long-standing issue that should not be politicised but rather call on our collective values and our deep-felt respect for humanity.

Our country has one of the fastest growing economies in this region, but it is rare to hear acknowledgment of the role that migrant workers play in that achievement. Migrant workers make up 15% of our total workforce. They are predominantly employed in the services sector, the largest contributing sector to Malaysia’s GDP. We know that around two million documented migrant workers call Malaysia their home. But there are also anywhere between two and four million undocumented workers living and working here.

Regrettably, while we clearly benefit from the economic value of migrant workers, we do not universally see and value them as people with families, friends, needs and desires – people just like us. These people have come here with high hopes and with equally high expectations placed on them by family members depending on them to send remittances home. Covid-19 and its economic impact have no doubt added to the pressure they feel, with the possibility of not only contracting the virus but also risking unemployment or, worse still, exploitation by irresponsible employers.

Most migrant workers live in crowded kongsi houses, shared spaces with around 40 to 80 occupants. This confined living, coupled with lack of awareness of public health services as well as a deep fear of arrest among undocumented workers, furthered by unscrupulous hiring practices in the shadows of our economy, spell trouble for our collective welfare and the capacity of our health system to cope with this pandemic.

As our nation becomes increasingly more educated and moves towards higher skilled jobs, migrant workers help fill some of the lesser-skilled roles to keep the country moving forward. My call today is that all migrant workers, whether documented or not, must feel able to step forward now to be tested. But for us to expect them to do this, there needs to be an amnesty, otherwise fear will prevent participation and we will run the risk of overcrowding detention centres because of mass arrests, potentially generating another outbreak hotspot. The lessons from Bukit Jalil and other detention centres around Malaysia are still fresh in our minds and we most definitely do not want a repeat of that experience.

There are laws that clearly and precisely define the protection of foreign workers including the Workers’ Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act 1990 (Act 446), amended in 2019 to include minimum standards for workers’ housing and amenities. But in many situations these laws are poorly respected by irresponsible employers or simply do not cover undocumented migrants, with the result that our negligence to protect the very people essential to our economy has cost us our own economic and health security.

Relevant agencies must step up and enforce this law to the letter and it is encouraging to see this finally happening after the recent outbreak in Klang involving a multibillion dollar company.

The next time you see someone who picks up the garbage or clears the plates in your favourite restaurant, think of who they are and what their story might be. If there is one thing that the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us it is that we do not exist in a vacuum. The world is far too interconnected. The virus does not respect borders. It does not discriminate but it does seek out and exploit vulnerability.

As we start to learn how to co-exist with the virus (as we must), it is ever clearer that our recovery must be built upon principles of cooperation and solidarity at all levels, with all people who live within our borders, in a spirit of mutual cooperation and support.

We are fortunate that Malaysia’s health systems are resilient, but for now we have to weather the storm before the calm. An amnesty for undocumented migrant workers would be one way of keeping our boat afloat.

TAN SRI DR JEMILAH MAHMOOD

Special advisor on public health to the Malaysian Prime Minister

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