No better time than now to enforce law on minimum standards for migrants

Recently, our country has been overwhelmed with news regarding an increase in Covid-19 infections among the foreign workers.

It seems to have followed a similar pattern in Singapore whereby local cases are going down but a spike in new cases has been contributed by foreign workers.

As for the latest health statistics, clusters of Covid-19 infections involving foreign workers have been detected at three construction sites as well as at three immigration depots. More than 4,000 undocumented immigrants have been detained at these depots for not possessing valid travel and work documents and tested for Covid-19.

This condition has certainly caught the attention of Malaysians in working our way out of this health crisis. As the number of local daily cases start to tone down, some have started to put the blame on these foreign workers but is it justifiable to do so?

Let’s first look at the factors which do not support the effort in mitigating the spread of virus.

According to the Health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, the main reasons are their crowded living environment and poor hygiene practices.

But migrant workers should not be the only ones blamed for such conditions. Aside from them not being hygienic, it is very likely that the workers are left with no choice but to stay in the cramped spaces due to low wages or because accommodations have been designated by the employers.

The attention should also be pointed to the employers as they are responsible for the welfare of the workers. The implementation of standard operating procedures (SOPs) at accommodations is as important as implementing them at the worksites.

Noor Hisham has called on the employers to ensure that physical distancing measures at workers’ accommodations are taken seriously by having beds at least one to two metres apart from each other, to avoid food preparation and consumption in large groups, to avoid crowding leisure spaces, and to ensure that the toilets and surrounding areas are cleaned and sanitised.

As stated in the amended Workers’ Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act 2019, scheduled to take effect this week for Peninsular Malaysia and Labuan, one of the duties and responsibilities of an employer associated with the current situation is 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 the 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: (b) to take necessary preventive measures to ensure employees’ safety and well-being.

So, there is written evidence which states employers’ obligation to take actions in curbing the spread of the Covid-19 outbreak among migrant workers.

The right action has been pursued previously by making it compulsory for foreign workers in all sectors to undergo Covid-19 screening after seeing a rise in number of cases at construction sites.

But this detection measure has to come along with preventive measures to ensure social distancing measures can be practised by foreign workers namely to provide appropriate residences for them.

The most recent announcement by the Human Resources Minister M Saravanan had the government giving a grace period of three months until Aug 31 for the employers 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 the current condition should be the key reason for employers not delaying compliance to the amendments.

The amendments were passed in Parliament in July last year then gazetted in September so the duration since then should have provided sufficient time for the employers.

Employers’ decision to postpone the compliance would be immorally responsible for Malaysians who are putting their lives at risk as well as for the foreign workers.

Furthermore, as most of the foreign workers are hired for the 3D jobs (dangerous, dirty and difficult), they are prone to unhygienic surroundings.

The awareness about the severity of the pandemic also needs to be instilled by educating them on the SOPs at worksites and at their accommodations.

Although we hope Malaysia’s Covid-19 cases would not be as bad as Singapore’s, as noted by a public health specialist with Universiti Malaya, Dr Rafdzah Ahmad Zaki, prompt preparations need to be taken because foreign workers already make up 15 to 30% of the labour force, according to experts.

So, Singapore should be the point of reference for Malaysia to learn lessons from and serves as a wake-up call. The enforcement of the amended Act should not be delayed as it is not only important to prevent the spread of the virus but also for the well-being of the foreign workers.

Nur Sofea Hasmira Azahar is a research analyst at Emir Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations.

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