Deplorable living conditions make life hell for migrant workers

A migrant worker preparing a meal in the common kitchen. Many migrant workers are forced to put up with squalid living conditions. (Tenaganita pic)

PETALING JAYA: They pawned, borrowed and begged and left their loved ones behind in the hope of earning more money but to many migrant workers who come to Malaysia, their hopes of seeking a better life have turned into a daily nightmare as they are forced to put up with deplorable living conditions.

Crammed 20 to a room, filthy toilets, water from a pond next to the latrines – these are just some of the horrific living conditions that the workers have to put up with despite efforts to get employers to provide better accommodation.

Labour Department for Peninsular Malaysia director Mohd Jeffrey Joakim said that while “many” employers had met the department’s minimum standard of housing for foreign workers, there is still a lot of room for improvement.

The Labour Department is right,” said Glorene Das, executive director of migrant rights group Tenaganita.

“Migrants build some of the world’s finest apartment buildings in Malaysia, yet they themselves live in the most horrible conditions right next to the building site.

“Once again, this is not a new issue. We have been bringing this up at every opportunity, but it has fallen on deaf ears because it has always been profit before people,” added Das.

While many migrant workers – be it in the construction, plantation, services or the manufacturing sector – live in deplorable conditions, Das said that some had it even worse as their employers had put them up in containers.

She explained how big shelves would divide the containers into an upper and a lower room to allow 12 to 15 people to live and sleep in the same container.

Food is prepared on the dirty floor of a small kitchen in a workers’ quarters. (Tenaganita pic)

She noted how at one site, up to 350 people were living in these containers.

As if that is not bad enough, when running water is not available, the workers use water from a pond behind the latrines where rainwater and overflowing fluids from the latrines mix.

The water is used for washing, cooking and even drinking.

Selangor Anti-Human Trafficking Council (Mapmas) member Abdul Aziz Ismail told FMT that workers who live in containers had no choice but to bathe and cook outdoors.

While he could not provide exact figures, Aziz estimated that 70% of migrant workers in smaller manufacturing and construction firms were forced to live this way while the figure in bigger companies was probably less than 30%.

Although the Workers’ Minimum Standard of Housing and Amenities (Amendment) Bill 2019 was passed in Parliament last July, Adrian Pereira, the executive director of migrant rights group North-South Initiative, said it would be “very difficult” for companies to adhere to the new standards as they would have to spend much more to provide better living conditions.

Amendments were made to the Act last July to ensure workers in all sectors of employment – as opposed to just the plantation and mining sectors – have better housing, amenities and health and safety standards.

However, Klang MP Charles Santiago said there were still instances where up to 20 workers were crammed into one room, with dirty toilets and “unusable” kitchens.

Santiago said migrant workers should be treated with respect.

A filthy common kitchen used by the migrant workers. (Tenaganita pic)

“Employers have to fulfil the rules set by the government, such as how many beds can be put in one room… Rules which I think are starting to be enforced,” said Santiago, who chairs the Dewan Rakyat’s Select Committee on Human Rights and Constitutional Affairs.

“This won’t happen overnight but it’s important for the industry to be disciplined and provide workers with the appropriate accommodation and facilities,” he added.

North-South Initiative’s Pereira told FMT it was the norm for employers to look for the nearest shoplot to their place of business and convert it into a hostel for the workers.

Pereira said he had seen instances of 15 people living in the same room – some without mattresses or other basic amenities.

While there are some positive stories – Pereira said accommodations at Panasonic’s Shah Alam factory are a good example – for the most part, he noted that companies did not care about the comfort of their workers’ hostels.

“Companies have to stop operating in such an exploitative manner,” he said.

“Among the worst are construction sites’ hostels, where there is cement residue in the air. These are all unhygienic and toxic places that will definitely cause respiratory diseases.

“Hostels with poor ventilation and bad living conditions can cause serious health conditions over the years. If this is repeated month after month, year after year, people are going to die in their sleep.

“Who should be held responsible? There is no accountability.”