A preoccupation with profits is the main reason behind the non-compliance of many employers and shareholders with the government’s rules on foreign worker accommodation, a rights activist says as workplace clusters continue to mushroom across the country amid a sharp spike in daily Covid-19 numbers.
With daily cases hitting four-digit figures of late, concern has arisen over the foreign worker community as crowded dormitories obstruct efforts to curb the spread of infection.
Earlier this month, the government revealed that the accommodation for some 91.1% or 1.4 million foreign workers in the country does not meet the provisions stipulated by law.
Human Resources Minister M Saravanan said the government had received applications for certificates of accomodation for only 143,587 foreign workers as of Oct 31 – a fraction of the number registered in the country.
But Adrian Pereira, executive director at North South Initiative, said non-compliance with labour laws is nothing new in Malaysia.
“The welfare of foreign workers has never been on their agenda,” he told MalaysiaNow, referring to errant employers.
“Migrant workers are supposed to fill the gaps in the labour market, not replace or displace locals,” he added.
The basic requirements of accomodation for foreign workers are laid out in detail in the Workers’ Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act 1990, also known as Act 446.
Act 446 specifies, among others, a single bed measuring not less than 170 sq cm, a mattress at least four inches thick, a pillow and blanket, and a cupboard that can lock for the safekeeping of valuables such as passports and other identification documents.
Other basic requirements include a cap on the number of workers allowed to share a space. For example, a maximum of six workers are allowed for an area measuring 1,500 sq feet. The maximum number of employees allowed to share a bathroom and toilet meanwhile is six for any accommodation other than a dormitory, in which case the number should be capped at 15.
“Migrant workers are supposed to fill the gaps in the labour market, not replace or displace locals.”
Checks by MalaysiaNow of online shopping platforms found that a single bed and mattress combined costs about RM170. A pillow and blanket costs about RM15 each while a lockable cupboard would cost roughly RM200. This means the total amount for these items would be about RM400 per worker.
According to Saravanan, though, the government had only received applications for certificates of accommodation for 8.89% of foreign workers in the country.
Pereira said employers had had ample time to comply with the regulations but failed to do so, showing that Malaysia is open to doing business “using the law of the jungle”.
He said many reports of forced labour have arisen across almost all sectors of the economy, showing that the problem had become systematic.
He also spoke of poor law enforcement, meaning minimal or no motivation at all for employers to comply with the regulations.
“In the past, there were incidents of sudden death where migrants died in their sleep.
“While research on the root cause is being done, one of the contributing factors could be poor accommodation where air circulation is not good and sleeping conditions are non-conducive for migrant workers to recuperate after 12 to 16 hours of work,” he said.
Calling for justice to be done for these workers, he said Malaysia should not wait for “external actors” to intervene.
“While the Americans try to discipline us through the TIP report, we should not wait for external actors to pressure us into treating our migrant workers with dignity,” he said, referring to the Trafficking in Persons report, part of Washington’s efforts to engage foreign governments on human trafficking.
“We should do it because of our own principles and values.”