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In COVID-19, ‘We’ Needs to Include Migrant Workers

Vera Files, Malaysia, 26 April 2021 - The living quarters of migrant workers in Kajang, about 30 kilometres from the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, were like a buffalo cage - dirty and smelly. In a December raid, Malaysia's Human Resources Minister M Saravanan was shocked and horrified to discover that 751 foreigners, working at a glove-processing factory, were living in two 1.5-metre-tall containers which could only accommodate 100 people.

Saravanan revealed that nine out of 10 migrant workers in Malaysia were provided with quarters that do not comply with the government's standards for worker accommodations.

Over in neighbouring Singapore, it was normal until recently for up to 20 migrant workers to be packed in a tiny room with double-decker beds. The cramped space – there were no legal rules on maximum occupancy in migrant workers’ quarters before COVID-19 – made social distancing impossible.

In sum, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed Malaysians and Singaporeans to the appalling living conditions of migrant workers who have been largely invisible in their daily lives.

Their overcrowded, often squalid, accommodation has been a key factor behind the pandemic’s spread in these countries. Thus, COVID-19 drove home the lesson that there should not be discrimination between the social protection of migrant workers and that of the general population as the virus does not differentiate between them, says Adrian Pereira, executive director of the non-government North South Initiative based in Malaysia.

But more than a year into the pandemic, has this led to a greater understanding of migrant workers’ lives among communities in ASEAN’s migrant-receiving countries?

Not quite, say activists pushing for migrants’ rights – although there were initiatives last year that saw Singaporean citizens reach out to migrant workers after reading media reports about how they were being housed.



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