As early as May this year, the government had made it a priority to look into issues in the living conditions of foreign workers. But only recently the government took a tougher stance on the issue when a major manufacturer was found to be providing unsatisfactory living conditions for their foreign workforce.
The Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) had consistently emphasised the urgency to look into the living conditions of foreign workers but only now more stricter measures are being taken.
There are millions of documented and undocumented foreign workers in the country and while it was acknowledged on several occasions that addressing the issues in their living conditions must be made a priority in preventing the spread of Covid-19, the authorities lacked the urgency.
Screening of foreign workers for Covid-19 is, of course, an important step to take, but it will make little sense to test them if they are to go back to their cramped living environment.
While it is a good move to prioritise Selangor and Negeri Sembilan now to screen foreign workers for Covid-19 due to the high number of cases reported in these states, the government should concurrently, take a systematic approach to check on foreign worker living conditions in dormitories, shop lots, flats and terrace houses nationwide.
The government may also need to get the public to assist them in identifying cramped foreign worker accomodation as there are thousands of houses in residential areas throughout the country used as worker accomodation.
It has become common knowledge that many of these houses are shared by between 10-30 workers where it will be impossible to observe physical distancing. MMA warns that not addressing issues in the living conditions of foreign workers will be like accidents waiting to happen.
It must be noted that about 90 per cent of the Covid-19 cases in Singapore were foreign workers. We are concerned as Malaysia has a much larger foreign worker population spread over multiple sectors nationwide.
Suitable temporary accommodation may also be needed for workers identified living in cramped living conditions as they can’t be returned back to their cramped quarters after being tested. These issues need to be given more thought and proper, detailed planning required.
As cost for ensuring new norm measures in worker accomodation will be an issue with many employers, we urge the government to engage more closely with stakeholders on a workable solution.
If heavy fines are imposed (RM50,000 per worker), many employers may not even be able to afford the improvements needed or even continue to sustain employment of their workers. What happens then? Many businesses will close shop and their workers left without jobs. Who will be responsible for taking care of the workers in the meantime?
The issue of undocumented foreign workers will also need to be delicately handled. The government will need to work with NGOs to get this group to cooperate or some may fear the authorities and run away making it a challenge to screen them for Covid-19.
Dr Subramaniam Muniandy is president of the Malaysian Medical Association.
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