Human Resources Minister M Saravanan was rightly horrified when he inspected the appalling housing conditions of foreign workers at a glove-processing factory in Kajang, Selangor recently.
He was so shocked that he described the overcrowded quarters as a buffalo cage: two long 1.5m-tall containers, reportedly turned into hostels, were meant to accommodate 100 workers, but instead were filled to the brim with 751.
For the benefit of migrant workers and our collective human decency, it is perhaps advisable for the minister, his deputy, other top ministry officials and other enforcement agencies to make unannounced visits.
These visits should include the living quarters for migrant workers of various other industries in the country, such as the construction and plantation sectors.
According to a 2019 World Bank report, there are some 3.0 to 3.3 million migrant workers, including 1.2 to 1.5 million irregular migrant workers, residing in Malaysia. Many of them come from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Vietnam and other countries in the region.
There is a good chance that Saravanan and company would see certain living quarters where migrant workers are packed in a way no locals of right mind would want to endure.
These living quarters are so crammed that physical distancing, as required by the Covid-19 standard operating procedure, is an immense luxury. In fact, they can be flashpoints for the spread of infectious diseases among workers.
The kongsi, or makeshift houses at construction sites, for example, may be worth a visit.
When there was an outbreak of Covid-19 infections as early as May 2020 among foreign workers living in overcrowded hostels in Singapore, it should have raised a red flag to the authorities here.
And yet there was no reported response from our authorities, particularly the Human Resources Ministry, in terms of mounting swift inspections on the living quarters of foreign workers in our country.
The Singapore authorities had built what was previously considered as a better model of migrant hostels, which was emulated by the Penang government. That was before the coronavirus struck.
There is now a concern about this model – especially the number of people that might be squeezed into rooms or flats, which could make them likely candidates for Covid-19 infection, among other diseases.
In another sense, these workers are physically segregated from the rest of our society, which could lessen meaningful interaction between them and the locals, thereby possibly enhancing suspicion, if not hatred, of the latter towards the migrant workers.
That said, the horrendous living conditions of the migrant workers are symptomatic of a larger issue in our society.
It points to the way some, including certain political leaders, civil servants and employers, look at and treat these migrant workers as almost half humans to be exploited to their whims and fancies.
This explains partly why some of these workers do not, for instance, get full pay as promised or have their monthly wages delayed. They may have to work extra hours for a pittance, if at all, and they face mounting debts as a result while their safety at work sites is neglected.
Not to forget, the workers have to pay hefty recruitment fees, which makes protest against 12-hour work or fewer rest days, let alone leaving their job, a difficult thing.
The recently reported case of a cleaning service agency allegedly forcing 35 foreign women to be daily domestic cleaners is another example of how migrant workers have been abused by unscrupulous employers.
Xenophobia, as fully exhibited by many locals during the pandemic, provides legitimacy of sorts to such exploitative misdemeanours.
It is long overdue for these migrant workers to be treated as fully-fledged human beings, who are here to make a decent living while making huge contributions to our nation-building.
Source: The Malaysian Insight