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Foreign workers’ dorms: Time bombs for infectious diseases?

The foreign workers hostel in Batu Maung, Penang - Photograph: thesundaily.com

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The health director general’s professional advice on overcrowding in the hostels should be taken seriously, Ravinder Singh writes.

Some time around mid-June, coronavirus cases in Singapore stood at 40,197. Of this 37,488 were cases from foreign worker dormitories, ie 93% of total cases.

What happened? No figures have been given for cases in the dormitories in Malaysia.

This atrocious situation was obviously brought about by a void in the system (if there is one in place) of auditing the cleanliness of hostels by government health authorities.

Health authorities can walk into any market or eatery at any time, without warning, to audit the level of cleanliness. Can they do the same in the case of foreign worker hostels which are private properties belonging to the hostel operators? Well, not unless the law allows it to be done, right?

These hostels are private property and guarded, with no access to members of the public. Even enforcement officers from the health and other departments would be required to give prior notice of any visits for any purpose.

When this is done, the operators will be on hand to receive them and guide them around. With today’s very easy photo and video-recording facilities, the hostel owners don’t have to be present when the audit is done.

This is where the big flaw is – being “forewarned is forearmed”.

The workers will be informed of the inspection/visit and warned to clean up. The operator will ensure the hostel is spruced up and meets the health and cleanliness requirements just for the day of the visit.

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Then on the appointed day, the inspection/visit is carried out and the inspectors/visitors are very impressed. Any workers interviewed would have just one standard answer – that the hostels are good, and they are happy to stay in them.

The workers will not dare to tell the truth (as was seen in the photographs that emerged after Covid-19 struck) as repercussions would be serious. So the visitors go away impressed, believing that the workers are living a good life in the dorms.

One such visitor was the Penang executive council member Jagdeep Singh Deo, a strong supporter of the dorms, who was so impressed that at a dialogue with the residents of Batu Maung on 27 July 2019, where a hostel has been built, he proudly told them “if I take you all one day to the workers’ dorms in Singapore, you all want to be a worker and stay there”.

Of course, he never saw all the unclean/unhealthy conditions in the dorms.

The Singapore experience should be a hard lesson. Last May, our Ministry of Health director general rang the alarm bell about the living conditions of foreign workers.

“If there is an infection, not only Covid-19, but we are talking about tuberculosis and all the (other) infectious diseases, if you live in a confined space, definitely infectious diseases will continue to spread,” he said.

The law for the operation of these hostels must be reviewed.

Firstly, it should not allow up to 18 or 20 people to be crammed into an 800 sq ft unit. The law should have provisions for independent auditing and harsh minimum penalties for recalcitrant hostel operators.

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It should, for health and safety inspections purposes, classify the hostels as public places similar to markets and eateries so that neither prior permission nor even notification is required to enter the hostels, at any time of day, to inspect, irrespective of whether there has been any health or safety issue reported.

At present, the onus is on the hostel operators to see to all matters related to the hostels. But their principal concern is making the maximum money from them, not providing the best (or even good) facilities for the wellbeing of the workers as claimed. For example, the operator of the S11 dorms in Singapore boasted they generate $70m (RM300m) a year. For all that money, he could not ensure that living conditions in the dorms lived up to acceptable levels.

There is a serious conflict of interest between the duties and desires of the hostel operators. Their duty is touted to be the provision of decent housing for the workers, but they are in this business with the desire to make the maximum amount of money they can from the hostels which they set up as money-making machines. So monetary desire overrides duty, and they are safely protected by the veil of private property.

Why do the authorities trust the greedy hostel operators so much as to leave it to them to comply with health and safety requirements without requiring independent, randomly done external audits? Do they have such high moral and ethical standards such that they don’t need to be audited?

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In 2014, the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs did an ethics survey and found that 95% of businesses were not operating in an ethical manner.

If this private property loophole is not addressed, the hostel operators will be having the last laugh while the workers helplessly go on enduring living in hovel-like conditions, running the serious risk of contracting and spreading infectious diseases which would inevitably spread to local communities. What then?

When the government abdicated its role in auditing the dorms independently, it became an accomplice to the hovel-like conditions in them and the spread of contagious diseases incubating in them. The price of such neglect, or abdication of responsibility, is very heavy.

All workers staying in hostels are supposed to be screened for infectious diseases. Has this been done?

Will governments take heed of the Ministry of Health director general’s professional advice on overcrowding in hostels, or will they continue helping hostel operators to reap maximum profits?

Source: www.malaysiakini.com

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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