Coronavirus: Malaysia frets over health of migrant workers in battle against virus

Malaysia is host to 2.2 million documented foreign workers. PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

KUALA LUMPUR - While Malaysia is seeing hopeful signs that it is slowly winning the battle to break the chain of coronavirus infections, uncertainty hangs over its large group of migrant workers.

Officials say they are casting their net wider in the fight against the pandemic by tightening safeguards around these foreign nationals, who are among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus as they often live in cramped conditions.

South-east Asia's third biggest economy is host to 2.2 million documented foreign workers, and another 3.3 million illegal workers and their families.

The migrants work in areas long abandoned by Malaysians as these are considered "3D" jobs - dirty, dangerous and difficult. These include construction sites to palm plantations, and as office cleaners to restaurant cooks.

The possibility of a fresh wave of Covid-19 infections among migrant workers is "of grave concern to us", Ms Glorene Das, executive director of the Tenaganita women and labour rights organisation, told The Straits Times.

"These workers are vulnerable because they live in congested shared quarters and do work that does not make it possible to practise strict social distancing," she said.

Undocumented workers are also unwilling to come forward to undergo testing for fear of being arrested, she added.

The health authorities, she said, should facilitate Covid-19 screening and testing for all migrant workers, both legal and illegal, and refugees or asylum seekers.

So far, of the 5,425 cumulative total cases reported on Monday, only around 11 per cent involve non-Malaysians, according to data from the Health Ministry.

They included Covid-19 clusters in three blocks of apartments in Jalan Masjid India and Jalan Munshi Abdullah in downtown Kuala Lumpur that have some 128 infections.

The migrants in Malaysia - both legal and undocumented workers - are mostly from Indonesia, Nepal, Bangladesh and India.

At end February, data from the United Nations High Commission For Refugees show some 154,000 refugees from Myanmar.

The call to conduct tests on migrant workers grew louder recently following the surge in new cases in Singapore mostly affecting low-wage migrant workers.

But unlike Singapore's migrant workers who are mostly housed in dormitories making it easier to locate and test them, most Malaysia-based foreign workers pay for their own living quarters and they are thus widely dispersed.

The health ministry's director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said on Monday (April 20) that he hoped to boost testing among foreign workers.

"We urge foreign workers at risk to come forward for screening and testing," Datuk Dr Noor Hisham said at his daily news briefing.

"We have also learned from our neighbouring country to take action fast in order to control the spread of infection among foreign workers," he said.

Malaysian Employers Federation executive director Shamsuddin Bardan said an issue involving illegal workers is whether they are covered by insurance and whether they would seek medical care if infected.

"When illegals are infected with Covid-19, it will be difficult to monitor and control the outbreak," he told The Straits Times.

Still, many migrant workers - who are now forced to stay at home due to Malaysia's movement control order (MCO) - have other concerns than getting the deadly virus. Many are worried about where their next meal would come from.

"I stopped working since the movement control order started," Lydia Flores, 43, who works as a part-time cleaner told The Straits Times. "I am a little worried, but more financially."

Malaysia on Monday (April 20) reported 36 new infections - the lowest since the MCO started 33 days ago on March 18.

The health ministry reported no new deaths on Monday, keeping total fatalities at 89.

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