Foreign labour and Covid-19 outbreaks

NOVEMBER 19 — One of the worst-kept secrets in the country is how out of control migrant workers’ management has been the past decade. Or longer.

There are more undocumented migrant workers than legal ones, which is alarming as it’s an industry involving millions. They are omnipresent. Employed in our factories, hotels, restaurants, cinemas, construction sites and more.

Covid-19, the pandemic that keeps on giving, laid bare our rampant abuse of migrant workers, but with a twist, as now their pain turns quickly into ours.

In pre-pandemic days, the approach was to threaten them out of the country when the economy is down, which includes inhumane detention centres and intimidation, to lower numbers.

When the money is good, then we roll out the carpet and talk about jacking up worker entry.

In short, trade them like commodities. This year has been a sharp learning curve as other truths hit painfully home.

It was inconceivable, before, that the borders would close and the country can’t repatriate workers and migrants — legal or not — fight to remain, after all if life at home was bad before Covid-19, imagine it is now?

No, they’d stick it out here till it gets better. And if they are shoved inside detention centres, it’s only an invitation to grow a giant infection cluster.

As workers they are served poor housing, often sharing cramped filthy spaces where personal hygiene is waived and are maxed out during working hours.

Our crude mistreatment converts them into super-spreaders. Sardined together, dirty and with compromised bodies.

But we love to have them at mall entrances, minding the registers and double-taping QR codes, and pointing us to the sanitisers.

So, what to do with these five to six million migrants?

Six months to react

New normal began on March 18, 2020.

Everyone at home. Offices and schools shuttered and everyone Zoom-ed to death. One representative to the supermarket, and only 50 in at a time. Buy a mask. Stay inside your 10-kilometre radius, military checkpoints and be inside your compound after 8pm.

Social distancing marched in a metre apart from flatten the curve into modern phraseology.

The idea was to circuit break and return to regular life in stages, with hiccups to be dealt with by preparations.

Where was that planning for foreign workers?

Six months for ministries — health, international trade, domestic trade, local government, federal territories, home etc — and state governments, and the local councils under them to find ways to keep things ticking along with minimal slip-ups.

They had to find a way to work together, cobble together workable plans, distribute responsibilities, co-ordinate efforts and perhaps most importantly, engage stakeholders — business owners, resident associations, unions, migrant communes and civil society groups. 

When there are hundreds of daily cases each from worksites — factory or construction sites — then failure is clear.

This is not a situation to be solved by launching an operasi with pegawai-pegawai penguatkuasa (enforcement officers) with intimidating caged transport vehicles rounding up migrants for a proper detention.

Hitting people does not resolve real problems, though it explains Salak Tinggi’s Medan 88 residents' reaction when their area was cordoned off under an EMCO.

Or knee jerk reaction from the deputy minister pledging to “go down harder” on migrants.

We need co-operation from migrant workers. While our labour market’s local-foreign balance requires study and an overdue correction, present Covid-19 disease control requires government to win co-operation to ensure broad and systemic compliance.

CSR is public relations, thus government steps in

A former minister asked for a special one-off tax on our glove companies rolling in pandemic profits.

Interesting, as he’s not alone asking companies to do more. More specifically, those with low-wage business models dependent on foreign workers.

Companies, in general and it might shock some, always want to do the absolute minimum. It is antithetical to profit maximisation to go beyond what is demanded.

Compliance adds to cost, therefore slices off from stockholders’ dividends. To avoid financial burdens is a sure way for executives to gain promotions and bonuses.

Top Glove faced a US ban recently because of human abuse allegations, which it overcame. Now, it has Covid-19 outbreaks in its factory. Could it do more, probably, but this column does not rely on corporations to lead.

Government leads.

Government takes businesses to task and presses expectations on them.

It runs point, and keeps businesses, their employees and community in harmony.

There are more than a million Bangladeshis here, but how many in immigration, home ministry, police, Rela, home defence, local councils read and write Bengali?

That’s just one glaring issue with the way we want to manage foreign workers.

Government must act in practical terms, not just reiterate its willingness to be harsher on offenders.

The millions of foreign workers right now determine if all of us have more or less liberties come Christmas and beyond because infection rates dictate.

They are not solely responsible; their employers, the government and the rest of Malaysia can assist to ensure all of us benefit from lower infections.

Our overall protection relies on an eye on our weakest link. In our distractions being in a virtual society, it’s easy to forget that physical society operates as a chain.

For so long we treated foreign workers as a negligible part of the chain, to be cut or reattached as need be. When it’s convenient.

Covid-19 taught us a whopper of a lesson. Let’s not require too many reminders, and act on it now.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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