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Migrant workers’ infections our woes, too

The authorities must conduct unannounced inspections of workers’ dormitories and hostels in the country to find out their conditions

Photograph: The roads travelled for work - Women Migrant Workers in Singapore and Malaysia by UN Women Gallery/Flickr

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The drastic spike of Covid-19 cases reaching four figures of late is clearly worrying Malaysians, given the viciousness of the virus.

That is why the government has taken several measures, namely implementing a second movement control order and its variants in certain states, with the sole aim to stem the menacing spread.

To be sure, the virus has spread far and wide and into the communities of migrant workers who have been here over the years to partake in our nation-building endeavours and earn a decent living.

It is estimated that in Malaysia there are between three million and 5.5 million documented and undocumented migrant workers, who hail from Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Cambodia.

While the fate of migrant workers at this juncture may not be on the minds of most Malaysians, it is crucial that concrete steps are taken to ascertain their health status in the context of the pandemic, as they have already become part of our social fabric.

As we all are aware, they are not only working at construction sites, but are also present in restaurants and at petrol stations, security gates and homes, among other places. Their interactions with the host communities at work, in marketplaces and at leisure have the likelihood to bring about transmission of the virus either way.

The mandatory screening of the migrant workers by the government is, therefore, a step in the right direction as this would go a long way towards protecting not only the migrant workers but also Malaysians in general.

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However, a statement issued recently by migrant rights group Tenaganita executive director Glorene A Das is cause for concern, as it involves the use of emergency powers with which the military could hunt down undocumented migrants.

As has been cautioned by other groups as well, it is feared that an action that is seen as coercive would instil fear among the migrants and drive them underground. This would undermine the government’s efforts to contain the pandemic among the migrants and treat coronavirus victims among them accordingly.

As in the case of previous police raids made on the migrant communities, trust was largely broken between the government and the migrants when the former was perceived as not honouring their initial pledge to not detain foreign workers, especially those who came forward voluntarily for testing. In short, a trust deficit may subvert a good intention.

In this effort to contain the pandemic in our society, it is also vital that the Ministry of Human Resources continually conducts, as it has done recently, unannounced inspections of workers’ dormitories and hostels in the country to find out their conditions.

In this regard, it is hoped that the public are made aware of the status of these investigations and their outcomes, from which further actions to improve conditions in these places are expected to be taken by the authorities.

This is apart from examining the condition of their workplaces that may also contribute to easy transmission of diseases and the coronavirus.

Indeed, migrant workers, whose work is usually dangerous, dirty and difficult, are more susceptible to diseases due to cramped living conditions and poor workplace practices.

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Incidentally, the migrant workers also become more vulnerable, especially those who find great difficulty in putting food on the table arising from retrenchment, loss of daily-wage jobs and reduced pay when lockdowns of various types are enforced. Malnutrition, for instance, paves an easy path for diseases to set in.

Improving conditions in these places is crucial in the concerted effort to curb the pandemic and to reduce the inclination of some Malaysians to make the migrant workers easy scapegoats when things go wrong in our society.

Equally important, such measures could help contain the spread of xenophobia among Malaysians, irrespective of their social status.

It is useful for us all to bear in mind that the Covid harms everyone and anyone, locals and migrants alike. – The Malaysian Insight

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