According to a World Bank report, there was an estimated 2.96 to 3.26 million migrant workers, including 1.23 to 1.46 million migrant workers in irregular situations, residing in Malaysia in 2017 (World Bank 2019).
To put this into perspective, one out of 10 persons in Malaysia is estimated to be undocumented. There may be more.
We need to keep in mind there are also undocumented women migrant workers in urban areas that go house-to-house offering cleaning services. They live across Malaysia, from Sabah to plantations in Johor. They are a part of our community.
The past few months have shown that Covid-19 clusters persist among factory workers. According to the latest report (New Straits Times, July 14, 2021), fifteen out of 26 new Covid-19 clusters identified by the Ministry of Health were workplace clusters.
There are many undocumented migrants who work in factories as well. They often live in crowded living conditions, which places them at higher risk for contracting Covid-19.
Herd immunity cannot work on the basis of separating undocumented migrant workers from Malaysian citizens. Undocumented workers carry a heavier risk since they live on the margins. Fearing arrest, they may feel afraid to report Covid-19 cases, and they may not seek treatment as well.
Many foreign workers, refugees and stateless persons are still undocumented, as a result of the incompetence and arrogance of the Home Ministry. It boils down to the management of the system and reluctance to change, so many of these workers over many years are still undocumented, and some even have been victims of crime syndicates.
The then-home minister, who is the current prime minister, had rejected the recommendations in a report issued by the Special Independent Committee on Foreign Worker Management, led by former Court of Appeals judge Hishammudin Yunus.
The primary purpose of this committee, when it was set up in 2018, was to stop unethical, unhealthy and unfair practices relating to recruitment of migrant workers in Malaysia.
The committee published a comprehensive report, which included 40 recommendations that I presented to the Cabinet for deliberation.
Among the core recommendations were:
- Establishment of the Ministry of Human Resources as the single authority for the management of all migrant workers.
- Development of an end-to-end single online system for the recruitment of migrant labour.
- A maximum of 10 years for the employment of a migrant worker.
- Regularisation of all undocumented workers, with a flexible amnesty programme along with meaningful access to justice where necessary.
- Abolishment of the Outsourcing Licence for foreign labour supply.
However, not a single proposal or recommendation has been implemented. Worse still, the report was never made public, despite calls for it to be made so.
Currently. the current harsh inhumane approach taken by the home minister to arrest these undocumented workers will only make it harder to control the worsening Covid019 situation in the country.
By continuing this approach, they will drive these workers deeper into hiding. Separating or targeting them on the basis of being undocumented is unjust in the current pandemic, and it also violates international labour conventions.
Therefore, a better alternative is to issue a general amnesty for undocumented workers, and start a mobile vaccination drive in collaboration with civil society organisations, to vaccinate all of them.
This amnesty could be a temporary measure, with a further review on circumstances that have made these individuals undocumented, and their role in Malaysia’s economy.
Even though the government is aiming for the full vaccination of all Malaysians by December, the country would still be unsafe until a large segment of migrant workers, documented or undocumented, are inoculated.
International reports have proven that there are people who are vaccine-hesitant. Some have even taken to the streets to protest. Every person willing to have be vaccinated, should be vaccinated. Now that we are working towards adequate supply, vaccination should be extended to all undocumented persons.
Vaccinating undocumented, refugees and stateless persons would be cost-effective and cheaper to what may happen if they remain unvaccinated. The vaccine will not only help save their lives, but also reduce heath care costs, and help us end the lockdowns that are currently devastating the economy and society.
We need to make Malaysia safer. To do this, we need to vaccine everyone.
Covid-19 does not discriminate. We should not do so either.
The time for the lock-them-up and lock-us-down approach must end. We can do this by treating others as how we want to be treated ourselves, with dignity and humanity, and in the process, make us all safer.
M. Kula Segaran is Member of Parliament for Ipoh Barat.
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