Lawyers for Liberty are deeply concerned with the news that the government is now considering having migrant workers wear wristbands purportedly to make it easier to identify them in public.
The reason for this, as stated by Senior Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob on 18 November, is so that the authorities can easily identify them and stop them from moving about freely.
This chilling suggestion essentially means the government is legalising or formalising prejudicial profiling under the pretext of combating Covid-19. Such forced identification marks upon certain segments of the population raises disturbing memories of Nazism.
The ramifications of migrant workers having to wear identifying wristbands is obviously and plainly catastrophic. Not only will they be made easy targets for harassment by the authorities, they will also be susceptible to discrimination by the general public.
The government is incentivising xenophobic behaviour by again perpetuating fearmongering that migrants are the cause for rising Covid-19 infections. Migrants cannot be blamed for a worldwide pandemic.
There is no discernible or logical reason for the government to compel all migrant workers to wear wristbands. There is no data to suggest that Covid-19 infections originate from migrant workers. The spread of the infections among them, as the minister himself readily admits in the same press conference, is due to the cramped living conditions they are forced to stay in.
Therefore, the focus should then be on taking legal action against employers or agents who forced them to live in cramped houses in the first place. The government should take necessary and immediate steps to ramp up enforcement on employers who are in breach of the newly amended Workers’ Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act 1990 instead of punishing vulnerable migrant workers who are victims of exploitation by unscrupulous employers looking to cut costs.
We thus urge the government to abandon the idea of branding migrant workers in this manner, as if they were cattle, and to stop making any statements or discriminatory policies that may encourage xenophobic attacks or intolerant acts against the migrant community.
The government must also take immediate and stern action against irresponsible employers or agents as they bear heavy responsibility for the spread of Covid-19 among migrant workers. Equally to blame are the enforcement agencies who have allowed this situation to perpetuate for years.
Zaid Malek is coordinator of Lawyers for Liberty