Malaysia’s capital city is a place of contrasts and diversity: soaring skyscrapers alongside ramshackle tin dwellings, cold monsoon rains just weeks before muggy heat. But perhaps the most marked contrast is that of class and access – a difference that became more pronounced and noticeable during the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying lockdowns.
At one extreme, there were those who had to work daily or risk going hungry. On the other end of this spectrum were those able to work from home and have their meals delivered daily. While almost everyone experienced economic difficulties, it is no question that among the most marginalised and precarious were the nation’s migrant workers.
According to the World Bank, Malaysia is home to some 2.9 to 3.3 million migrant workers. Of this number approximately 1.5 million are irregular, making them vulnerable to abuse from employers and the state apparatus.
Despite strong economic and humanitarian arguments in favour of providing migrant workers with better rights, many remain in dire straits: underpaid, at risk of abuse, and enduring poor living conditions. This reality was compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly Malaysia’s shelter-in-place phases that saw migrants going hungry, losing their jobs, and struggling to avoid infection. Cases of migrant worker abuse made headlines, causing the US State Department to downgrade Malaysia to Tier 3 – the worst ranking – in its 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report, and to impose import bans on glovemakers Top Glove and Supermax, as well as two large palm oil conglomerates, over allegations of slave labour.
Further, rather than adopting a whole-of-society approach to safeguard the population from coronavirus, the Malaysian government – despite its pithy ‘none of us are safe until all of us are safe’ catchphrase – instead embarked upon a slew of immigration raids, detaining over 18,000 undocumented workers over the last two years. Those who publicly spoke out against the raids were investigated by the police or even deported. When the nation’s vaccination drive began in earnest many migrant workers were too afraid to get vaccinated due to fears of deportation, and calls from civil society to put in place an amnesty programme went largely ignored. More mixed signals were given when the government launched a recalibration scheme that allowed for the voluntary repatriation of undocumented migrants – but continued carrying out large-scale raids as recently as January.
Despite doing this, those responsible for irregularity – unscrupulous recruitment agencies and employers – went unpunished, as Indonesian Migrant Domestic Workers Association (PERTIMIG) advisor Nasrikah Paidin noted. ‘Most of the time they’re the perpetrators of exploitation, and they gain cheap labour.’
The immobility mandated by the pandemic, through movement control orders and closed borders, has resulted in exacerbated threats for migrant domestic workers in Malaysia – already at high risk for physical, psychological and sexual abuse due to the nature of their employment. As the populace became more restive, the pressure on live-in domestic workers, who had no respite from work, worsened.
‘Because everyone was mandated to stay at home, the one-day-off rule was rendered moot’, said Bariyah Iyah, also of PERTIMIG. Complaints of unpaid wages increased, and domestic workers were also more vulnerable to sexual harassment as their ability to access the outside world was extremely limited.
The virus – along with poorly thought-out, reactive policies – has resulted in a grievous impact upon migrant workers in Malaysia, regardless of the sector they work in. Without extensive social security improvements (including unencumbered access to healthcare), measures to fight corruption along recruitment channels, robust access to remedy, and legislative change, Malaysia will continue its unsavoury legacy of marginalising and exploiting migrant workers.
Tashny Sukumaran is a senior analyst with Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies. She is the founder of 50-50 Malaysia, a tool to connect policymakers, journalists and members of the public with women experts in, on or from Malaysia. She holds a postgraduate degree in human rights law from SOAS, University of London.