Asian Insider

Malaysia's migrant workers bear heavy load

An official checking on migrant workers at the Bukit Tengah industrial zone in Penang in January, in a bid to enforce compliance with legislation on the minimum standards for worker accommodation.
An official checking on migrant workers at the Bukit Tengah industrial zone in Penang in January, in a bid to enforce compliance with legislation on the minimum standards for worker accommodation.PHOTO: BERNAMA

KUALA LUMPUR - The Covid-19 pandemic has had a major impact on the lives of migrant workers in Malaysia, but has done little to alleviate their plight.

Observers say many, in fact, face a heavier workload because the pandemic has led to the closing of international borders or the suspension of immigration programmes, leading to a shortage in labour supply in a number of sectors.

The government has promised to provide vaccines for free to migrant workers - both documented and undocumented - but many of them as well as activists say there has been no communication from the government about the timeline for vaccinating foreign workers even though the official inoculation programme has been under way for two months.

Malaysia is home to around three million migrants but there are estimated to be another three million more who are undocumented, and the total number could represent as much as 20 per cent of the country's population.

"Some of those who work in certain places have been vaccinated. But if they are made to work extended hours without any break, they will be tired, and even though they are vaccinated, they can always contract Covid-19 again," said Mr Herman Suherman, an Indonesian migrant worker who leads Serantau, a self-organised group representing migrants from Indonesia.

"Now, you have one person doing three people's jobs in some places. Some have complained that they do not get days off."

Many of Malaysia's migrant workers are in the construction sector, where they are housed in makeshift dormitories, and in the manufacturing sector. Both sectors have consistently reported clusters of infections over the past year.

The government has taken steps to improve housing for such workers, but Mr Herman said some factories still do not provide anywhere near satisfactory accommodation or sanitation.

Red tape is another bugbear for many foreign workers, like Mr Sohil Mulla, whose lack of a work permit means he cannot legally return home to Bangladesh even if he wants to.

Mr Sohil, who works in a construction firm, had a valid permit when he came to Malaysia, but it was cancelled after his prospective employer was blacklisted. Seven years later, the 31-year-old has not gone home to visit his child, who was only seven months old when he left.

"I just want to go back," Mr Sohil told The Straits Times.


A construction site for an expressway in Kuala Lumpur, where a crane structure fell and crushed a car, injuring the people in the car and killing three construction workers from China in March. PHOTO: BERNAMA

He is an undocumented migrant and works roughly 12 hours a day, or even longer, to earn a decent wage. Mr Sohil said he is a daily-rated worker, and much of his income is made up of overtime pay.

Without overtime, he earns only RM60 (S$19.40) for every day he reports for work. He has repeatedly worked at least 26 days a month, or even a full month without days off, to maximise his income.

Mr Sohil has been tested six times for Covid-19 as part of periodic checks due to the high risk of infection at his workplace.

North South Initiative founder Adrian Perreira, an activist who works on migrant rights advocacy, said the pandemic was an opportunity to address issues relating to migrant labour, but things have only become worse over the past year.

"I thought Covid-19 would have forced us to look at the issue more seriously, but until today, the attitudes of policymakers and bureaucrats don't exhibit any political will," he told The Straits Times. He does not see any concrete labour reforms happening in the near future.

The authorities last year rounded up and arrested scores of migrant workers after initially promising not to detain them if they came forward to be tested for Covid-19.

A documentary by Al Jazeera on the plight of migrant workers being held in immigration detention depots also led to a backlash. One migrant worker who spoke up on the issue in the documentary was deported amid rising resentment against foreigners in the country.

Last week, a Pakistani migrant worker committed suicide, citing several months of unpaid wages.

But Mr Herman said there have been worse cases. "I know of a case, where a (Indonesian) migrant has not gotten paid for two years. The person has gone to the embassy to complain but this matter is yet to be resolved."