Construction clusters may cause discrimination against migrants

Suhakam says it is unfair to treat migrant workers with prejudice and calls on everyone to unite in fight against Covid-19

by AFIQ AZIZ / pic by TMR FILE

THE absence of a concrete and constructive measure to mitigate the spike in Covid-19 cases among construction workers may lead to a social crisis, on top of the existing negative perception that locals have on migrants, experts said.

According to Universiti Malaya senior consultant psychiatrist Dr Muhammad Muhsin Ahmad Zahari, during the non-crisis period, Malaysians were already looking at migrants, mostly working the 3D (dirty, dangerous and difficult) jobs, in a bad light.

Dr Muhammad Muhsin said with the spike of coronavirus cases among migrants, this will fuel anxiety in the communities, especially those who are staying nearby the clusters’ vicinity.

On Monday, the Damanlela construction site cluster in Kuala Lumpur reported a high number with 385 new cases. The cluster was first announced on Sunday, with 460 of its workers tested positive. As of yesterday, there were new 206 positive cases at the site, bringing the total positive Covid-19 cases in the area to 1,051 cases.

The announcement also raised debates over the effectiveness of the standard operating procedures within the construction sectors, despite having resumed operations since May after stop-work was ordered in March due to the Movement Control Order.

Dr Muhammad Muhsin said in general, people do have grounds to be worried over the spike of cases among migrants and be reactive towards this situation, which includes avoiding coming into proximity with foreigners.

“We already had perceptions that migrants live in a less hygienic environment. Covid-19 being on the rise would only make it worse.

“Additionally, people are already high-strung with the economic downturn and uncertainties ahead of them.

“With the emergence of huge clusters among migrants, anxiety will rise within the community and affect our daily routine.

“People may avoid places with many immigrants even if they frequent those places for necessities,” Dr Muhammad Muhsin told The Malaysian Reserve (TMR) yesterday.

Additionally, Dr Muhammad Muhsin said as it is understood that only half of the over six million migrant employees are documented, it raises concerns that millions of these migrants were not screened for Covid-19.

Last year, the Human Resources Ministry told the Parliament that 1.99 million foreign workers in Malaysia were registered under the Temporary Visiting Work as of August 2019.

The manufacturing sector employed the highest number of foreign labours (706,502), followed by the construction sector (429,552), plantation sector (268,203), agricultural sector (150,003) and 130,450 domestic maids.

Yesterday, TMR reported that the spike of Covid-19 among foreign workers, especially in the construction sector, would be unavoidable if the government does not find an immediate solution.

In a statement on Monday, Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB) attributed the surge of Covid-19 cases at the Damanlela site to movement of workers from one project site to another.

Stakeholders, however, said the issue of foreign labours still hinges on the safe and liveable living conditions of the migrants.

Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) argued that Singapore — which has a better system in place such as the Centralised Labour Quarter (CLQ) — also experienced the same wave caused by migrant workers.

3D labours, in general, were not provided with such amenities and are at risk of a greater wave compared to the republic.

MTUC deputy president Mohd Effendy Abdul Ghani told TMR that if the transmission among migrants continues, this will also affect the locals at the workplace which could cause disharmony and hinder productivity.

Mohd Effendy said migrant workers should be treated fairly and equally, especially when it involves basic human rights like health provision.

The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) echoed the view that it is unfair to treat migrant workers with prejudice and called on everyone to unite in the fight against the pandemic.

“It is unfair to enjoy their cheap labour, but during hard times, we abandon them. If we can give fair treatment to other clusters from Sabah, we should treat foreign workers the same.

“After all, the virus does not choose its victims according to their backgrounds,” Suhakam commissioner Jerald Joseph told TMR.

Joseph hoped that political leaders could convince the public to not discriminate against migrant workers, noting that this issue may be played up on social media and cause the stigma against the immigrants to worsen.

“On top of this, it is also a strong wake-up call for the government to better manage how migrant workers live.

“For example, while we acknowledge that CIDB has the initiative to provide CLQ to this group, it is not enough, and small companies could not afford to provide this,” he added.

Read our earlier report here