Living in peril — Covid-19 haunts migrant workers

Majority of the 4m foreign workers, including illegals, have little savings as they send their hard-earned money back to their family


WORRIES of being infected by the coronavirus, prolonged loss of income and the risk of starvation continue to shroud hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in the country, who are mostly on daily wages.

Foreign workers, estimated around four million including illegals, came to Malaysia to perform the tasks that have largely been rejected by locals.

Most of these workers, especially in the construction sector, live on daily wages and the majority will send their hard-earned money back to their family, leaving them with little savings.

“The migrant workers, mostly in the construction sector who live on a daily wages, lamented that they have not received their salary since two months ago,” Nasrikah, an organiser at an Indonesian migrant domestic workers association called Pertim, told The Malaysian Reserve (TMR).

A daily wage for a construction labourer in Malaysia is about RM50 at a minimum, according to her.

Malaysia has about four million foreign workers, with more than half of them illegal. The country has set a cap on foreign labour employment to be below 15% of the total workforce by 2020 as underlined in the 11th Malaysia Plan.

Nasrikah, who herself is a former domestic worker, said foreign labourers in the construction industry are out of jobs, among the worst hit compared to others such as those in the manufacturing and cleaning sectors.

“Factory workers said they still got paid even though they do not go to work these days. But not all cases are like that because there are some who did not (get) their salary.”

“For cleaners, some of them are still working, for example in the hospitals, but those who do cleaning at offices are now jobless as premises closed,” the 41-year-old said.

Nasrikah left her domestic work two years ago. She currently plays a role in a food aid initiative for foreign workers organised by a non-governmental organisation called Our Journey Bhd.

Foreign workers in the construction sector live in “rumah kongsi” (makeshift lodgings at sites) made out of plywood or containers, Nasrikah said.

Hundreds or thousands of people, depending on the size of the project, live together comprising various nationalities including from Indonesia, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

One unit in a “rumah kongsi” is small, typically enough to put one of two mattresses for two persons or colleagues. Some dwell with their wife and kids. They have a shared kitchen, while men and women have to share one open shower with barely proper sanitation.

“Most of them who are without documents, or on a one-month working permit, want to go home because they could not do anything at the moment.

“There is no work,” Nasrikah said, “and they are afraid there is no food too.”

For instance, she said workers in “rumah kongsi” buy their vegetables from a lorry that comes to the area regularly, but since the implementation of the Movement Control Order (MCO), there is no such lorry in sight.

“They do not have transport. Those who have no documents are afraid to go out, even before the MCO period.”

Migrant workers in the security sector, many of whom are Nepalese, seem to be living in better condition. Hari Budhathoki, 38, has been in Malaysia for two years and four months. He works as a security guard in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

In the current Covid-19 pandemic times, he said he still gets his salary of RM1,800 a month, which is usually paid on the 7th.

“For the security sector, we do not face any problem currently. We still have to look after offices even if they are closed,” Budhathoki said.

He said the security firm he works for provides accommodation consisting of a single-storey house with three bedrooms. The Nepalese said he lives with 11 other people for free at the house, just a kilometre away from the building he works at.

Budhathoki, however, admitted that life as a security guard is not as easy as it may sound. He said he does not have any off day, even on public holidays.

“We work for 30 or 31 days, 12 hours a day at the minimum. Sometimes, it is suffering and we want to rest, but have no choice. What to do, for survival.”

One particular problem that he faces now is sending money to his family abroad. He said it is currently difficult to transfer money to his home country as businesses closed.

Foreign workers have been making a beeline for remittance services early this month, but the MCO left them with no avenue — unless they know how to perform the request online.

Budhathoki said he normally uses RM500 here and sends about RM1,200 to Nepal every month. He added that he is lucky to have a good connection with the person who does the remittance, who has helped him transfer the money online.

“Many of my friends have reached out to me to do their remittance.”