PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Malaysia's Labour Department has been told to give their full focus on probing working and housing conditions at Top Glove factories after an outbreak of Covid-19 among its factory workers led to the country's largest active Covid-19 cluster.
The cluster around the company's factory and dormitory area in the town of Meru alone contributed 1,511 out of the 1,623 cases recorded in the Selangor state on Tuesday (Nov 24), according to the health ministry. That's 93.1 per cent of the state's total.
Since Nov 7, the cluster recorded a total of 4,036 positive cases.
Human Resource Minister Datuk Seri M Saravanan said the National Security Council (NSC) had decided to go "full force" to stop the spread of the virus in the cluster that had originated from the world's largest disposable glove manufacturer after more than two thousand employees tested positive for Covid-19.
"We are not merely sending a team to check on the conditions at Top Glove. It will be the entire Labour Department.
"We will complete everything within a week and will put everything in black and white.
"This is a matter of life and death of vulnerable workers, which must be contained now itself - no two ways about it, " said Saravanan.
Saravanan, who had visited Top Glove's plant several days prior with the Labour Department officers, said the workers' housing conditions were deplorable.
"I have visited the hostels and the conditions are terrible. My officers were ordered to go in full force as this is a big, vulnerable migrant workers colony. If we don't act, this cluster might get out of control.
"The Labour Department will ensure the employers are held responsible for worker conditions and dire action will be taken according to the law, " said Saravanan.
In photos and video clips provided by the minister, the hostels look overcrowded and unsanitary.
In July, two Top Glove subsidiaries were slapped with an import ban by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) over allegations of forced labour.
In reply, on Oct 24, Top Glove said it has resolved issues highlighted by the US Department of Labour (DOL).
In an issued statement, Top Glove said it was working closely with the authorities to fight the pandemic.
"Top Glove wishes to assure our customers we are working closely with the authorities through this period towards ensuring the continued safety and well-being of our employees and local community, which remains our utmost priority, " the statement read.
It added that the company would continue adhering to the Covid-19 preventive rules on a stringent basis.
"Disinfection exercises at our premises and accommodation are also conducted regularly, with all the necessary precautionary measures strictly in place, " the statement further read.
Top Glove currently employs over 21,000 workers nationwide.
It has 28 factories in the district of Klang, the epicentre of the Teratai cluster.
On Nov 23, the NSC decided Top Glove must close its factories in stages after Covid-19 was found breaching the worker's circle.
The cluster first emerged on Nov 7 and now has 4,036 cases. From the total, over 80 per cent are foreign workers.
The once busy and overcrowded Meru town, where several Top Glove factory units are located is now like a ghost town.
Local residents in the area say they are scared to leave their homes as the area has recorded over 1,000 Covid-19 positive cases.
Single mother of two, S. Ganeswary who earns a living cleaning houses said she is scared of stepping out of her house because of the high number of Covid-19 positive cases in the area.
"I take every precaution possible like wearing a mask and washing my hands regularly, but there is still the nagging feeling that I too can get infected, '' she added.
R. Letchumi, 69, who is a cleaner in an iron products company located next to one of the Top Glove factories, says that she prays very hard before going to work daily.
"I pray that Covid-19 will spare me and my husband who is ill at home currently, '' she added.
The Top Glove factory next to her work place is one of the premises closed after some of its workers tested positive for Covid-19.
Izzat Nazni, 20, who also lives in Taman Seri Meru said the Top Glove situation has made residents in the area wary of foreigners.
"It is not a nice thing but people have become frightened of foreign workers in the area," said Izzat, who helps his mother in her kueh supply business.
He added there are many foreign workers who work in other nearby factories who rent houses in the area he stays in.
According to Izzat, whenever foreign workers pass by on their way to work, the neighbourhood's local residents quickly move away and look at them with suspicion.
"I suppose it's because everyone is frightened, '' he added.
Meanwhile, Meru assemblyman Mohd Fakhrulrazi Mohd Mokhtar urged authorities to stop operations at all Top Glove plants in the area.
Currently, only 16 premises stopped while 12 more were operating at a reduced capacity.
Klang MP Charles Santiago said employers must ensure there is ample space for workers to practice social distancing at the workplace as well as in the hostels.
"For example, there should not be any bed sharing. Bathrooms must also not be shared by too many workers and kept very clean at all times, '' said Santiago.
He urged the Human Resources Ministry to come down hard on employers who do not meet Covid-19 protective measure standards imposed on hostels and dorms.
"Enough time has been given and the government must ensure the formulated accommodation guidelines are implemented with immediate effect, '' he added.
Kapar MP Datuk Abdullah Sani Abdul Hamid said factory operators must also inform authorities immediately if an employees test positive.
"They must not try to fix the problem on their own," added Abdullah Sani.
Senior Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob said on Monday that all 28 Top Glove plants in the Kapar area will be closed in stages for mass testing and the quarantine of its workers.