Since late February 2020, Malaysians have seen a shift in its political sphere. The global coronavirus pandemic has presented the country’s new prime minister and cabinet a test of leadership and decision-making.

A major strategy by the newly minted Malaysian government, implemented on 18 March 2020, was to restrict physical movements in and around the country to reduce the spread of the virus. Malaysians and the approximately 2 million migrant workers have been hard hit by this policy. Businesses have ceased operations, leaving many migrant workers without work and wages. In essential services, some have been asked to work overtime, without much rest or certainty of getting paid adequately.

On 20 April 2020, a report circulated about the death of a migrant worker caused by COVID-19 at a local hospital in Kuala Lumpur. This sparked concerns over the unchecked spread of the virus amongst migrant communities. It was also after this incident that mass testing amongst the migrant workers' community was suggested.

The corresponding actions by the government saw this community placed under enhanced lockdown. This would be the first of several sites in which lockdowns were implemented to purposely contain migrant communities from spreading the virus. Not long after this, on 12 May 2020, officials from the immigration department, the army and police conducted raids against 'illegal immigrants' in various hotspots around Kuala Lumpur.

Scapegoats in Times of Crises

Migrant labour is a common facet in various sectors of the Malaysian economy. Their services are essential to ensure the viability of both large, small and medium enterprises (SMEs), although their contributions have been relatively underestimated. This is can be seen in the way locals tend to dismiss calls for fair treatment.

However, since the start of the pandemic, many Malaysians are increasingly forced to confront how essential migrant workers are for the local economy. Part of the demand stems from the fact that migrant workers are said to possess various characteristics which local employers themselves find more appealing. This would include being more hardworking, adaptive to situations and generally more motivated to earn an income, even if it is lower than the national average.

Apart from this, migrants can also be seen as desirable, not only by employers but also the government, for their relative disposability. Sentiments show that since the pandemic started and Malaysia braces itself for an impending economic downturn, migrant workers and refugees have been increasingly subjected to xenophobic acts and opinions.

For instance, representatives from Malaysian Employment Federation (MEF) have expressed their concerns about Malaysian employers unfairly retaining their migrant workers at the expense of local employees. In response, a representative from the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) has criticised the federation for discriminating and victimizing a group of people who employers are highly dependent upon.

Moreover, migrants’ current positions are further threatened when they are unable to defend themselves against such sentiments and misinformation. Images of migrant dwelling quarters being barbed-wired and heavily guarded by the army as part of an enhanced movement control order (EMCO) give a sense of this embattledness.

Reports have surfaced about the lack of food aid and other essentials being distributed to those living in EMCO areas, which have been met with xenophobic responses by locals who view these acts as justified. Civil society groups have criticised these actions during such an exceptional time of crisis.

The situation for migrants has become even more dire since the EMCO, as migrants are now being rounded up and placed in detention centres. The overcrowded nature of these centres, along with dubious health and safety measures, have caused a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases amongst migrants detained.

The situation is compounded by the concern that many refugees are being misidentified as ‘illegal migrants’, a by-product of Malaysia not being a signatory to the UN 1951 Refugee Convention. This has resulted in many refugee women and children being detained. In particular, the Rohingya community has borne the brunt of these actions.

Useful for the Wrong Reasons

The pandemic has seen Malaysians embroiled in an existential tailspin with regards to their relationship with migrant workers. In times of prosperity, migrants quietly service Malaysia’s pursuit of modernity and development; in times of crisis, they become the collective fall guy.

In a Facebook video chat session uploaded last month the Human Resources Minister encouraged Malaysians who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic to replace migrant workers who are often employed in dirty, dangerous and demeaning (3D) work. Adding to this, he also suggested that locals should consider becoming migrant workers themselves, citing better basic wages in countries like Japan.

This advice reveals various contradictions to the way Malaysians think about migration and the people who migrate. On one level it is an admission that they have long misidentified the meaningful, essential work of migrants as demeaning and degrading. On another level, it is also an admission that migration is a relatively easy and viable solution in overcoming poverty and underdevelopment of a country. On a human level, these contradictions reveal how the treatment of migrant workers in Malaysia is unnecessarily harsh.