It looks like we are heading south like Singapore’s dormitory clusters. The Singaporean government refused to listen to the NGOs that forewarned them. Rights groups including Transient Workers Count Too had warned about the cramped living conditions.
It was a problem the government overlooked, as Singapore was then riding high, lauded worldwide as having set the “gold standard” in its response to the pandemic. Looks like Malaysia is falling into the same trap.
Malaysia has 1.99 million foreign workers (FW) registered under the Temporary Visiting Work Permit as at 31 August 2019. The immigration department’s statistics reported that the manufacturing sector employed the highest number of foreign labor (706,502), followed by the construction sector (429,552), plantation sector (268,203), agricultural sector (150,003), and 130,450 domestic maids.
The Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) executive director said that there could be up to 3.3 million undocumented FW.
As at April 2020, 14,187 migrant workers had been tested for Covid-19 virus, with 676 (4.8%) positive cases. In May 2020, Malaysia had confirmed 6,535 cases and less than 1,000 (15.4%) of them were among migrants. During the same period, Singapore which has 2.5 million legal migrants had registered 21,000 Covid-19 cases, mainly in its migrant workers.
The migrant labor market has helped to boost the Malaysian economy, which has until recently been severely disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. In its bid to reboot the economy, the health and well being of their migrant labor workforce is being challenged due to their vulnerable circumstances.
This includes their poor living conditions, overcrowding, poor ventilation and sanitation, with poor access to health or social welfare services.
Apart from negatively impacting our economic growth, it poses a major health and security risk to the wider Malaysian population.
We should address this urgently, strategically and compassionately to avoid a repeat of what happened in Singapore, which suffered a second wave of Covid infections from its dormitory cluster.
The following are some steps for the National Security Council (NSC) to consider in its whole of government approach towards this multi-faceted problem:
- Close collaboration between the several major players namely, ministries, government agencies, international agencies (IOM, UNHCR, WHO), NGOs and CSOs (civil society organisations).
- This collaboration should be coordinated by the National Disaster Management Agency (NADMA).
- There should be a moratorium against the arrest and detention of migrants for immigration related offences during this pandemic.
- This amnesty should be extended to the industries employing undocumented FW up until a date decided by the NSC. This tripartite partnership between the government, the private industries and NGOs is pivotal to ensure an agreed framework of action to ensure a whole of society approach to mitigate the outbreaks and foster understanding, cooperation and camaraderie in the difficult days ahead.
- In the short term, the private sector are expected to comply with measures that would mitigate the transmission of the coronavirus, namely, improving ventilation of living and work spaces, better sanitation facilities, protective work-based “bubbles” and the establishment of standby isolation quarters for those whose tests are pending. In the long term, a major improvement of their living conditions is imperative, moving away from congested, crowded and poorly ventilated dormitories.
- The tacit agreement on the moratorium must be honoured by all parties and informed to the FW and the related industries through the wide network of NGOs, CSOs, international agencies, embassies and the press.
- Many NGOs and CSOs have been long involved and have effectively outreached to the FW community to protect their labor rights, health and social wellbeing. They should be roped in as a bridge towards effective communication with the FW community. These includes Tenaganita, Beyond Borders, MAPIM, MSRI, SERANTAU (Indonesia), Our Journey, AMMPO (Philippines Domestic Workers), PERTIM (Indonesian Domestic Workers) and North South Initiative.
- Testing of FW – With the MOH lead, there is a need to agree on the best strategy for FW testing, namely a rapid diagnostic kit (RTK-Ag), which is practical, affordable and readily available at the Point Of Care (POC). 60% of COVID-19 spread occurs among people who show no symptoms. Frequent testing is therefore needed to identify cases early as part of a Test-Trace-Isolate-Support (TTIS) rapid response. Testing every 2 weeks should be considered, preferably with RTK-Ag or pooled PCR. It also important to undertake perimeter screening around the hot spots to rapidly detect any spillover into the surrounding communities.
- Tracking – most of the FW will have a smartphone. We need to empower the employers to mandate (as part of the amnesty bargain) all their FW to download a tracking app, MySejahtera or SeLangkah. The latter allows for individual-level QR-code check-ins and check-outs. Posters must be made available at all entrances and exits at living quarters, workers transportation, work spaces and shared common areas.
- There should be solation centres dedicated to pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic Covid-19 positive cases.
- And/Or consider designated facilities for controlled mixing to enhance herd immunity build up.
- Monitoring for the development of early complications through virtual consults and the availability of examination booths to check for the following vital signs namely; oxygen saturation monitoring, temperature, pulse rate and blood pressure.
- Admission to dedicated hospitals for FW with early complications
- Upon verification of status on testing, to allow “certification” to safely join the labor workforce.
- Education of FW and their employers on the essentials of Covid-19, with emphasis on the early recognition of symptoms and signs and early diagnosis and need for tracing, the essentials of care of the carriers and patients and of their rights and responsibilities.
- NGOS and CSOs needs to continue their works with leaders of the FW communities towards capacity building and empowering their communities towards self-sustainability.
- There is a need for translation of simple information and guides on Covid-19 in their mother tongues, if not already available.
- A similar strategy may need to be adopted to address another high risk and vulnerable cluster, namely the refugees who number 175,000 strong. Most of them located in the Klang Valley (150,000) with other bigger communities in Kedah, Penang and Johor.
- This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.