Malaysia is heavily dependent on the labour of both documented and undocumented migrant workers, most of whom come from Indonesia, Nepal and Bangladesh. These workers are disproportionately affected by the challenges presented by COVID-19 due to a range of interconnected factors relating to the specific jobs they engage and their immigration status.

In line with global efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19, on 18th March 2020, Malaysia enacted large-scale social distancing via a nationwide Movement Control Order (MCO), ranked as the fourth strictest restriction in Southeast Asia. This partial lockdown involves a complete restriction of movement and assembly and the closure of government and private businesses; excluding those which provide essential services including transportation, electricity, water, retail and food supply. Non-citizens are unable to enter Malaysia and Malaysians are not allowed to leave.

Work or starve

The vast majority of Malaysia’s migrant workforce occupy so-called “low-skilled” positions whereby workers are employed on employer-tied fixed-term (temporary) contracts in manufacturing, construction, plantations, agriculture, services, and domestic work sectors. The roles most migrants carry out do not provide the option of ‘working from home’ during this pandemic. Migrants are left with two options: lose their jobs or face increased health risks. If their workplace remains open, they have no choice but to continue working at a place where their safety may not be guaranteed.

Due to COVID-19, the ILO estimates that countries in Asia-Pacific face the biggest job losses worldwide with an expected 175 million full-time positions lost. The Malaysian Institute of Economic Research has estimated that the best-case scenario is that 951,000 jobs will be lost in Malaysia, of which 68 per cent will be those deemed low-skilled. Malaysia’s Labour Ministry has advised that “if a lay-off is inevitable, foreign employees should be terminated first”.

Malaysia’s MCO caused many migrant workers in the construction, manufacturing, cleaning, and service sector to lose their jobs overnight. As they are no longer able to work or earn during lockdown, some sending countries, such as Bangladesh, have stepped in to provide food and essential supplies to some workers. Community organisations are also trying to raise money for migrants who have lost their income. However, many migrants will remain unable to access any support.

Aside from permitted ‘essential services’, other companies have applied for exemptions to continue operations (19,000 construction companies applied alone). While the Malaysian government has announced that all workers in businesses that have been permitted to stay operational must be tested for COVID-19, there are concerns for the labour conditions under which migrants are being forced to work in during the pandemic. For example, operations at the country’s timber mills have left thousands of migrants fearing for their health and safety as workers currently “feel like they’re being made to choose between COVID-19 or starvation”.

One of the most problematic ‘essential production’ sectors is the glove-making industry. Malaysia manufactures an estimated two-thirds of disposable rubber gloves worldwide, and the production lines are largely staffed with migrants from Nepal and Bangladesh. This sector was accused in 2018 of forced labour and of subjecting its migrant workforce to extremely long working hours, while withholding their wages and passports. These accusations prompted investigations into labour conditions at the Malaysian companies WRP Asia-Pacific and Top Glove by the UK’s National Health Service Supply Chain and by the US. These investigations culminated in the US banning imports from WRP in October 2019 citing evidence of forced labour. However, given the current spike in demand for disposable gloves and other personal protective equipment (PPE), the US lifted the ban in March 2020 stating that forced labour was no longer an issue. The EU has also offered tax incentives to Malaysian companies to supply PPE. During this pandemic it seems that governments seeking to secure PPE for their frontline healthcare workers are overlooking the ongoing concerns (outlined by Andy Hall here) surrounding the ‘slave-like’ cramped working and living conditions experienced by the migrant workers who manufacture the gloves. Adrian Pereira, from North-South Initiative, argues that the demand for the continued manufacturing of PPE sees “the EU putting both migrant and Malaysian workers at risk of forced labour”.

Finally, as some companies reportedly continue to operate without government approval during the lockdown, migrants may be compelled to continue coming into work with no guarantees for their safety. The Malaysian Trade Union Congress has received 500 complaints against employers who have continued operations despite the MCO, with some reportedly threatening to fire employees who refuse to come to work, including in some non-essential factories.

Fears of accessing medical assistance

Malaysia’s Health Ministry reports that there is currently no identified COVID-19 cluster linked to Malaysia’s migrant worker population. This is in stark contrast with neighbouring Singapore, where around 80 per cent of cases are linked to migrant workers due to the conditions in the dormitories where thousands of migrant workers live in close proximity, with 12-20 workers per room. Of the newly reported cases in Singapore, about 95 per cent are migrant workers from these dormitories. It is feared, however, that there may be unreported cases in Malaysia’s migrant workforce who, like in Singapore, are often housed in cramped complexes with poor sanitation and ventilation, making it impossible to follow social distancing and hygiene guidelines.

The likely reason Malaysia is yet to identify clusters relating to migrant workers is that many workers are wary of seeking medical assistance and tests for COVID-19. Migrants in Malaysia are fearful and are accustomed to living and working in a country where the non-state actor RELA (the People’s Voluntary Corps) is authorised to track down and arrest suspected undocumented migrants. While the Department of Health announced that tests will be free for all migrant workers showing symptoms, barriers in uptake will remain. Documented workers may fear that if they get sick they will lose their jobs and therefore their permits. Undocumented workers will fear that seeking medical assistance will lead to their arrest and deportation as government hospitals are usually required to report undocumented migrants.

Migrants’ fear is justified as, on 1st May 2020, the police rounded up and detained hundreds of undocumented migrants in Kuala Lumpur, including young children and Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. This roundup operation, which was condemned by the United Nations, was allegedly conducted to prevent undocumented migrants from travelling to other areas during the MCO. The impacts of this raid will be far-reaching. In the midst of a global health crisis, it is difficult to see how detaining undocumented migrants in overcrowded immigration detention centres will do anything bar exacerbate the spread of COVID-19 among detainees and drive the country’s migrant population into hiding. The government had previously stated that nobody will be arrested based on their immigration status while seeking medical assistance during the pandemic but migrants will no longer trust this and will now seek to remain under the government’s radar by avoiding seeking medical assistance. This will put their own health, and the health of others, at risk.

In the coming weeks there will likely be a rise in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among Malaysia’s migrant worker population, from those who are being held in detention centres to those who are being forced to work without adequate protection and those whose living conditions prevent social distancing. The Ministry of International Trade and Industry has stated that the next wave of the MCO may see some businesses re-opening in order “to strike a balance between the requirements of the health of the people and also the economic priorities”. Over 100,000 businesses have now applied to reopen and it is feared that employers may turn a blind eye to the welfare of the country’s migrant workforce in pursuit of other gains.

This blog was originally published on 4 May 2020 by the Migration Policy Centre Blog.