MANY have long suspected that overcrowded accommodation is what is fuelling the rise in the number of Covid-19 cases.
Overcrowded workers’ housing, detention centres and prisons make it impossible to practise physical distancing, helping the virus to spread. Public health experts had already warned earlier of the need to deal with this when a glove manufacturer’s quarters for workers emerged as a major cluster in Selangor, followed by other workers’ housing.
The Human Resources Ministry has said rules and regulations are already in place, but as usual enforcement has been lacking. Now that the pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of such premises, there is a rush to enforce those rules. The companies seem to have been caught unprepared despite the regulations having been put in place some time ago. It is not cheap to change accommodation overnight, it seems.
For years, the issue of overcrowded living quarters has been taken lightly. Two factors have now surfaced making it more urgent to solve this housing issue. One is, as stated, the pandemic. The other has to do with stands taken by some importing countries to ban products that do not meet international labour standards, which include proper housing for workers. Palm oil and glove exports to the United States have been stopped at entry ports. We should not be surprised if our furniture exports are also subjected to similar treatment if we do not improve labour housing in that sector as well. This also exposes the fact that resorting to foreign labour is not really cheap if we factor in the cost of providing proper accommodation.
The construction sector faces a similar dilemma, as it is very dependent on imported labour. Efforts by the government to get the sector to use more labour-efficient technology like industrialised building systems (IBS), or pre-fabrication, have been largely ignored. In many developed economies, the use of IBS has not only reduced dependence on manual labour but has also led to improved quality.
Furthermore, the factories that manufacture the building parts and components for IBS would be able to use IR4.0 (Fourth Industrial Revolution) technology, including robotics and other digital options, to further reduce labour costs. The pandemic should be a wake up call for this sector. With the change, there is a good chance more locals may be keen to work in this area.
It is good, though, to hear that the construction sector is taking the lead in addressing the workers’ housing issue. The Works Minister recently announced an initiative to build proper workers’ quarters that would be rented out. The Construc-tion Industry Development Board has been asked to help out. It would be useful for a similar initiative to be undertaken for workers in the other sectors.
We should look at how Singapore handled the foreign workers’ accommodation issue. They had a spike in cases a few months ago, mostly from workers’ quarters. At one time, the government even rented a cruiseship moored at the jetty to temporarily house workers. After mass testing and strict quarantining, the spike came down. Here, after we do the mass testing, the workers go back to their crowded dormitories before results come in, and there the spread happens again.
The government’s announcement that it will relocate some low-risk prisoners out of overcrowded prisons to National Service Training Programme centres currently lying idle is very welcome news. We need more such initiatives.
PROF DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM
Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia