Covid-19 Exclusives: Migrant Workers Face an Ever More Challenging Present, and an Ever More Uncertain Future

loading Migrant workers headed for Covid-19 screening tests. Photo: ©Abdul Razak Latif/123RF.COM.

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THE MONTH OF May witnessed a string of raids targeting migrant workers in specific areas around KL. The actions took place, almost in catch-up mode, to ring-fence these foreigners1 who, since the 1980s and 1990s, have been coming into the country in large swathes for job opportunities, often without proper documentation.

The Covid-19 clusters found among migrant workers in Singapore, which now accounts for more than 90% of confirmed cases2 alarmed Malaysians and the government. Many migrants here too, live in crowded living spaces where the practice of social distancing is difficult to achieve; some have limited access to running water, and often kitchens, toilets and wash areas are shared. Under such conditions, the risk of getting infected and infecting others with Covid-19 is thus unavoidable.

The Raids: A Double-Edged Sword

Malaysia’s Minister of Defence Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced on April 20 that the Enhanced Movement Control Order (EMCO)3 would cordon off specific overcrowded residential areas; residents would not be allowed out until the order was lifted.

On May 1 Immigration Department officers, aided by police personnel, the armed forces, and the Health Ministry and the Civil Defence Force, led area-specific raids to round up migrants for Covid-19-testing. Identified undocumented migrants were marshalled off to detention centres; those who tested positive were treated and quarantined.4

A total of 7,551 migrants had their documents checked during the raids and 4,398 have been arrested, including women and children, and sent to detention centres as they did not have identification papers, were overstaying, had fake permits and passes, and were suspected of offences under the Immigration Act 1959/63, the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants (ATIPSOM) Act 2007, the Passports Act 1966 and Immigration Regulations 1963. Undocumented migrants who tested negative for Covid-19 would be deported back to their countries of origin and blacklisted from entering Malaysia for good.

This transitionary dependence on migrant workers that began in the 1970s is now an entrenched feature of the country’s workforce and economy.

Criticisms of the raids have come far and wide from national, regional and international nongovernmental organisations (NGOs). The United Nations (UN) and International Labour Organization (ILO), too, expressed concerns. The UN reiterated that “no one” ought to be left behind including migrant communities, in this fight against the virus and that detention centres carry a high risk of increasing Covid-19 infections among both detainees and staff, and appealed for the children and their caregivers to be released.5 Covid-19 outbreaks have happened in some detention centres – 230 positive cases among migrants and staff at the immigration detention depots were reported on May 28.6

National NGOs have contended strongly that this form of crackdown will only lead to migrants going deeper into hiding, subsequently living in far worse conditions, and further exposing themselves and others to the risk of Covid-19. This has indeed happened; some have fled into the jungles of Pahang, Johor, Terengganu and Kelantan.7 Concertedly, NGOs have also noted that these raids are acts of criminalising migrants more than a public health service.

Ismail Sabri Yaakob was robust in his response, denying the government’s mistreatment of the migrant community. Food and shelter were provided, as was testing for the deadly virus. Migrant workers who tested positive were quarantined and sent to treatment centres at the Malaysia Agro Exposition Park Serdang. There are also plans to house confirmed cases at the old leprosy centre - the Valley of Hope - in Sungai Buloh Hospital and the old maternity block of the Kuala Lumpur Hospital. The minister urged the public not to believe everything the NGOs or politicians say about the matter.8

The Complex Web

There are 1.99 million documented migrant workers, largely from Indonesia, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal, with smaller groups from Thailand, the Philippines, Pakistan and India. Most work in manufacturing (706,502); construction (429,552); plantation (268,203); agriculture (150,003); and as domestic help (130,450).9

There are also foreign documented and undocumented domestic workers, or “maids”, numbering between 300,000 and 400,000 who are working and living in the homes of their employers.10 However, the number of migrant workers in sectors such as cleaning (offices, houses, car washes, factories), transportation, electrical and plumbing services, in hawking or in deep sea fishing or prawn / crab farms remain unknown. Many of them work illegally with the acquiescence of employers who are willing to break the law. When contacted, the Ministry of Human Resources (MOHR) is only able to determine figures of those with work passes, while the Immigration Department can only provide figures based on social visit pass entries.

An ILO survey revealed that Malaysians fared most poorly on their treatment of migrant workers, when compared to Singapore and Thailand.

Data disparity and categorisation is an issue that has been highlighted in a few studies11. A case in point: MOHR’s 2016 estimate of undocumented workers was pitched to be about 3 million whereas the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) gave a total figure of 6 million, but for all migrant workers, documented and undocumented. This higher figure was supported by the Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia (ACCCIM). Interestingly, a Malaysia Parliament Discussion (MPD) document (2016) gave an estimate on the proportionality of Malaysian citizens to foreigners to be 2.5:1.12 Malaysia’s 2019 population figure of 32.6 million, showed a foreign population of 3.2 million,13 but based on the MPD ratio then, there ought to be 9.3 million foreigners, most of whom would be undocumented migrant workers as the documented figures would stand at 2 million.

This transitionary dependence on migrant workers that began in the 1970s is now an entrenched feature of the country’s workforce and economy. Industries have been clamouring for more workers in their sectors and the economy has been growing on Malaysia’s dependence – some call it an “addiction” – on cheap labour from other developing countries. But concerns have been equally raised over this escalating demand for migrant workers to grow Malaysia’s economy.

Next Steps

The focus remains on Covid-19 as a public health concern. Testing for Covid-19 needs to become affordable and available to all persons, including migrant workers; and when a vaccine is found, it will have to be made accessible to all persons in the country. These labour-intensive, pandemic-induced raids seem to fall into an ill-placed process as there are millions of undocumented migrant workers across the country, especially in Sabah and Sarawak. It is a containment exercise in the presence of a highly contagious virus. As a result, the risk of Covid-19 infection remains high among migrant workers – including those who have actively dropped off the grid.

Instead, if the government offers amnesty, expedites processes to investigate claims, especially on unpaid wages, and regularly sanitises living areas, many would willingly step forward to be identified and even be repatriated in due course, with the help of embassies. A humanitarian approach would be more effective country-wide. It is important to note that both documented and undocumented migrant workers have been left out of the assistance schemes from the stimulus packages.

For longer term management, reducing the inflow of migrants is encouraged. This means tightening border controls; reining in smugglers and traffickers; imposing heavier penalties on errant employers who recruit undocumented migrant workers; enforcing the stipulated minimum wages; offering fair and decent work conditions; introducing penalties on defaulting businesses in the labour supply chain; and continued diligence and governance by officers.

There is an urgency to deal with prevalent prejudices and discriminatory attitudes toward migrant workers. An ILO survey14 revealed that Malaysians fared most poorly on their treatment of migrant workers, when compared to Singapore and Thailand. Political leaders and civil service officers need to set the tone on the dignity and respect that is deserving of the migrant community. It is a win-win situation with legally-binding contractual transactions between employer and employee, and an enhanced reputation for Malaysia and its guest workers.


Photo: ©Abdul Razak Latif/123RF.COM.

Ethical business practices, e.g. the showcase of companies employing fair practices to acquire raw materials, labour, waste disposal without further damaging the environment and the shareholding of businesses within accessible means of its population, are the way to go for a country that is serious in cementing its reputation in regional and global trade deals.

A proposal is at hand – the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights.

Employers need to be supported and cajoled into easing their reliance on migrant workers for their cheap labour and do-many-things task list. Many Malaysians here and those who have migrated overseas for better job opportunities may be out of work post-pandemic; but they are not about to work on the current wages given to migrant workers.

Fair and decent work conditions for all human resources within a country, based on a no-compromise policy on minimum wages, are a norm in many developed economies. In order to reroute Malaysia’s economy and for the country to work its way out of recession, it is time to reframe the workings of industries, e.g. greater reliability on Malaysians and on technologies.15 These considerations need to be juxtaposed against the situation where well-educated and highly skilled Malaysians take on lower paying jobs in countries like Singapore, based on its stronger currency conversion rates.

This is a disconnect that needs to be reviewed and patched up if Malaysia is to retain its own people and to build up their livelihoods, while treating migrant workers with equal dignity.

Braema Mathi is a visiting senior research fellow at Penang Institute. She is from Singapore and she loves the hills, the rivers and trekking – all of which are plentiful in Penang.
1They will be called migrant workers – documented and undocumented – in this article, as is the norm internationally.
2Singapore Covid-19 cases hit 32,343, Bernama, 26 May 2020 https:// cases-hit-32343
3Malaysia has been under the Movement Control Order since 18 March 2020, enacted to combat the spread of Covid-19.
4Malaysia rounds up migrants to contain coronavirus, U.N. warns of detention risks, 2nd May 2020; coronavirus-malaysia-migrants/malaysia-rounds-up-migrants-tocontain- coronavirus-un-warns-of-detention-risks-idUSKBN22E04A
5UN warns police raids will push migrants into hiding, 2 May 2020; warns-police-raids-will-push-migrants-into-hiding/
6Timothy Acharium, Malaysia is treating illegal workers fairly, says senior minister Ismail Sabri, 28th may 2020; news/other/malaysia-is-treating-illegal-workers-fairly-says-seniorminister- ismail-sabri/ar-BB14F0HC?li=BBr8YXF
7Minderjeet Kaur, Fearing raids and uncertainties ahead, migrants vanish into the forest; 28th May 2020; category/nation/2020/05/28/fearing-raids-and-uncertainties-aheadmigrants- vanish-into-the-forest/
8Timothy Acharium, Malaysia is treating illegal workers fairly, says senior minister Ismail Sabri, 28th may 2020; news/other/malaysia-is-treating-illegal-workers-fairly-says-seniorminister- ismail-sabri/ar-BB14F0HC?li=BBr8YXF
9“Malaysia has 1.99 million foreign workers registered as at Aug 31”; workers-registered-aug-31; 8th Oct 2019
10Triangle in ASEAN Quarterly, April – June 2019, https://www.ilo. org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---asia/---ro-bangkok/documents/ genericdocument/wcms_614381.pdf
11Ministry of Higher Education, “Foreign Labour In Malaysia: Selected Works”; 2017; Foreign%20Labour%20in%20Malaysia%20Selected%20Works.pdf
12The World Bank; Malaysia: Estimating the Number of Foreign Workers ( A report from the Labour Market Data for Monetary Policy Task); 18th March 2019; en/953091562223517841/pdf/Malaysia-Estimating-the-Number-of- Foreign-Workers-A-Report-from-the-Labor-Market-Data-for-Monetary- Policy-Task.pdf
13 cthemeByCat&cat=155&bul_id=aWJZRkJ4UEdKcUZpT2tVT090Snpydz0 9&menu_id=L0pheU43NWJwRWVSZklWdzQ4TlhUUT09;
14Public attitudes towards migrant workers in Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand; International Labour Organization; 2019, revised in 2020; documents/publication/wcms_732443.pdf
15A good account is given in Ang Jian Wei, Athreya Murugasu, Chai Yi Wei, Low-Skilled Foreign Workers’ Distortions to the Economy, Economics Department, Bank Negara Malaysia, March 2018; https:// papers&ac=61&bb=file

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