Migrant workers suffer as Malaysia and Singapore combat Covid-19 – dpa international





A street lined with Myanmar restaurants and shops in downtown Kuala Lumpur, a major destination for migrants (Simon Roughneen)

Millions of migrant workers in Malaysia and Singapore toil in conditions that leave them vulnerable not only to the coronavirus, but to strict lockdowns imposed to stem the pandemic in host countries.

The wealthiest and third-wealthiest countries in South-East Asia, Singapore and Malaysia respectively, depend on millions of immigrants to fill low-wage jobs in agriculture, construction, domestic help and restaurants.

This critical but often neglected section of society – nearly one and a half million people in Singapore and perhaps twice as many in Malaysia – has been thrust into the spotlight by the coronavirus pandemic.

The past two weeks have seen a surge in Covid-19 cases across 43 government-sanctioned dormitories that house around 200,000 of Singapore’s migrant workers.

Of Singapore’s record 386 new cases announced on Monday night, the “majority are Work Permit holders in the dormitories,” according to the Ministry of Health.

Altogether around a third of the city-state’s 2,918 cases have been linked to the residences, where workers from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal and elsewhere often sleep 10-20 to a room.

“The number of work permit and dormitory-related cases has increased sharply, and this is likely to continue going up,” National Development Minister Lawrence Wong warned on Sunday.

In response, the government has started moving tens of thousands of workers to empty public apartment blocks and army barracks.

Some 1,300 workers will be moved to three ships known as “floating hotels,” which are usually used by offshore workers, with 31 “healthy” migrant workers moved onto one of the boats on Monday.

Wong said last week that authorities would test “aggressively” in dorms to separate the sick from the healthy before relocation takes place.

Singapore incrementally imposed travel restrictions in March as the Covid-19 pandemic spread elsewhere, but only imposed a national lockdown – which it is calling a “circuit breaker” – last week, after the recent outbreak in the dorms.

Alex Au, vice-president of migrant NGO Transient Workers Count Too, said the dormitory cases reflect “our many years of neglect of migrant workers.”

“The impact [of the lockdown] on the migrant workers is different to the general population, most of whom are middle class,” Au said. He hoped the outbreak would lead to a rethink of migrant labour policy once the pandemic subsides.

Most migrant workers, Au explained to dpa, “don’t have their own apartments, they don’t have kitchens, so you can’t tell them not to eat outside, there are a lot of other restrictions like how many can leave a dorm at any one time.”

Of Singapore’s nearly 5.8-million population, almost 1.4 million are listed in government statistics as foreign workers.

In contrast, nobody knows exactly how many migrants work in next-door Malaysia.

The International Labour Organization (ILO), a United Nations body, estimates that migrants make up around 30 per cent of the Malaysian workforce. Separately, around 300,000 Malaysians would normally commute in and out of Singapore every day for work, illustrating how closely linked the two countries’ economies are.

Some of Malaysia’s lynchpin migrant workers have found themselves under tighter movement restrictions than the rest of the population since a lockdown was imposed on March 18.

In contrast to Singapore’s offshore hotel plan, according to which the essential needs of the occupants will be taken care of, the government in Malaysia stated last week that foreign embassies should take on this role, ensuring food and other essentials are delivered to their citizens living in cordoned-off areas where “clusters” of Covid-19 cases have been diagnosed.

Wahyu Susilo, executive director of Jakarta-based Migrant CARE, which lobbies the Indonesian government to speak up for the country’s millions of workers overseas, said that Malaysia’s restrictions “ignore the reality of vulnerable migrants.”

Unlike in Singapore, the authorities in Malaysia must contend with a massive clandestine workforce.

The World Bank in 2019 put the number of undocumented workers in Malaysia at between 1.23 million and 1.46 million. These workers, Wahyu said, face even greater difficulties than those with work permits.

Among Malaysia’s undocumented are tens of thousands of Rohingya who fled persecution in Myanmar.

Along with around 15,000 others from all over South-East Asia, hundreds of Rohingya attended an Islamic ceremony on the outskirts of the city in late February that has been linked to around half of Malaysia’s Covid-19 cases.

But many have been reluctant to come forward for testing due to fear of arrest, despite government assurances that they would not be detained.

“Most Rohingya refugees just stay at home without any means to get money to feed their family,” the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organisation Malaysia (MERHOM) said, adding that it is struggling to organize aid deliveries to Rohingya due to the movement restrictions.

Similar restrictions on movement are causing problems for undocumented migrants across South-East Asia, officials said.

Governments in the region should “put in place rules-based pathways to regularize the situation of migrants who would otherwise face immigration penalties,” the UN’s Human Rights Office for South-East Asia said last week.

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