How much is a migrant worker’s life worth?

I refer to the horrifying case of a Nepali foreign worker killed in a freak accident while working in a meat factory in Alor Gajah last week.

Most Malaysians are now focusing on a certain ministerial resignation and with good reason, as education is universal. It would naturally be a national talking point.

What is strange is that although the news of a tragic incident regarding a foreign worker was covered (and quite extensively, internationally and locally), it received little to no attention from the public.

This is perhaps due in part to the nature of the news. It did not have the “sell value” to go viral, I suppose.

It was a matter easily forgotten, without so much as a second thought. One then wonders how much the life of a foreign worker is worth and whether it is less than that of a local. Why is that?

Deaths of migrant workers are not something new in Malaysia. In fact, as recently as February last year, there was a report of a Bangladeshi killed on the job at a construction site.

The Kathmandu Post, a major newspaper in Nepal, reported that there were 364 deaths of Nepalis in 2017.

The figures for 2018 are no better, with nearly one Nepali foreign worker dying every day.

In 2018, the International Labour Organization (ILO) instituted a project — the Migrants Rights and Decent Work Project (Miridew) — to support the government of Nepal in promoting new destinations or sectors for low-skilled Nepalese workers.

The ILO report stated that the deaths of Nepali foreign workers, as far back as 2016, were the highest in Malaysia.

As such, one cannot help but come to the inevitable conclusion that Miridew was born out of a necessity to lower the number of deaths of Nepalis working worldwide.

The high number of fatalities is nothing to be proud of. We are simply not doing enough to protect these human lives.

We are quick to blame foreign workers for “stealing” our jobs or for taking up space in buses. The truth of the matter is that foreign workers take on 3D (dirty, dangerous and demeaning) jobs in Malaysia and put themselves at risk.

We don’t have the humanity to be concerned about the safety conditions they work under in factories, construction sites or other places.

I sometimes fear that former British prime minister Winston Churchill’s style has become the go-to in dealing with human lives.

Churchill supposedly once said something along the lines of “famine or no famine, Indians will always breed like rabbits” (and this would not be surprising as he was a known racial bigot).

This was said to be in response to the criticisms of the 1943 Bengal famine, which was a direct result of British colonial policies and where an estimated two to three million lives were lost.

Whether or not Churchill’s words are apocryphal, the current way in which we treat human lives is rather Churchillian.

A concern that comes to mind when these deaths occur is whether there has been compliance with the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1994 (Osha).

Labour laws are in place to protect migrants from this sort of incidents.

The issue is perhaps how far these laws are being implemented and how they function in a practical sense. Osha is a familiar term; it sounds legitimate, and it seems calcified in the system. But is it really?

It is clearly stipulated in Section 16 of Osha that the employer has a duty to formulate a health and safety policy. In the same vein, under Section 30 of Osha, it is mandatory for every employer to establish a safety and health committee at the place of work.

The question is: was this practised at the meat factory?

Additionally, was there sufficient training provided to the Nepali foreign worker as to the dangers of operating the meat-mincing machine (if he was in fact operating it as the facts are a little muddled here)?

If the answer to these questions is in the negative, the implications are that there will be more of such cases and the stakeholders will again be turning a blind eye.

If the answer to these questions is in the positive, then there are serious loopholes in the manner in which Osha is practised.

This is a Catch-22 situation. Either way, it appears that Malaysia is caught in a quagmire, one that is subjecting us to international scrutiny.

Parveen Kaur Harnam, a lawyer, is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.