Migrant workers’ camps are time bombs for infectious diseases

LAST week’s Covid-19 figures for Singapore stood at 40,197. Of this, 37,488 were cases from the migrant worker dorms, ie 93.26%. What happened?

No figures have been given for cases in the dorms in Malaysia, and for all we know, the situation could be similar.

This atrocious situation was obviously brought about by a void in the system (if there is one in place) of auditing the cleanliness of hostels by the health authorities.

They can walk into any market or eatery at any time, without warning, to audit the level of cleanliness.

Can they do the same in the case of migrant workers’ hostels, which are “private properties” belonging to the hostel operators? Well, not unless the law allows it, right?

These hostels are private property and guarded with no access to members of the public. Even enforcement officers from the health and other departments would be required to give prior notice of visits for any purpose.

When this is done the operators will be on hand to receive them and guide them around. With today’s very easy photo and video recording facilities, the hostel owners don’t have to be present when the audit is done.

This is the big flaw: being “forewarned is forearmed”.

The workers will be informed of the inspection and warned to clean up. The hostel operator will ensure it is spruced up and meets the health and cleanliness requirements just for the day of the visit.

Then on the appointed day, the inspection is carried out and the inspectors are very impressed. Any workers interviewed would have just one standard answer: that the hostels are good and they are happy to stay in them.

They will not dare to tell the truth (as was seen in the photographs that emerged after Covid-19 struck) as repercussions would be serious.

So, the visitors go away impressed and believing the workers are living a good life in the dorms.

One such visitor was the Penang exco member Jagdeep Singh Deo, a strong supporter of the dorms, who was so impressed that at a dialogue with the residents of Batu Maung on July 27, 2019, where a hostel has been built, he very proudly told them “if I take you all one day to the workers’ dorms in Singapore, you all want to be a worker and stay there”.

Of course, he never saw all the unclean and unhealthy conditions there.

The Singapore experience should be a hard lesson. Last May, director-general of health Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah rang the alarm bell about living conditions for migrant workers.

“If there is an infection, not only Covid-19 but we are talking about tuberculosis and all the (other) infectious diseases, if you live in a confined space, definitely infectious diseases will continue to spread,” he said.

The law for the operation of these hostels must be reviewed. First, it should not allow up to 18 or 20 people to be crammed into an 800sqft unit.

It should have provision for independent auditing and harsh minimum penalties on the recalcitrant hostel operators.

It should, for health and safety inspections purposes, classify the hostels as “public places” similar to markets and eateries so that neither prior permission nor even notification is required to enter the hostels at any time of day to inspect, regardless of whether there has been any health or safety issue reported.

At present, the onus is on the hostel operators to see to all matters related to the hostels, but their principle concern is making the maximum money from them, not providing the best (or even good) facilities for the well being of the workers as claimed, eg the operator of the S11 dorms in Singapore boasted that they generate S$70 million (RM214 million) a year.

For all that money, he could not ensure that living conditions in the dorms lived up to acceptable levels.

There is a serious conflict of interest between the duties and desires of the hostel operators. Their duty is touted to be the provision of decent housing for the workers, but they are in this business with the desire to make the maximum money they can from the hostels, which they set up as money-making machines.

So, desire overrides duty safely protected by the veil of “private property”.

Why do the authorities trust the greedy hostel operators so much as to leave it to them to comply with health and safety requirements without requiring independent, randomly done external audits?

Do they have so high moral and ethical standards such that they don’t need to be audited? In 2014, the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs did an ethics survey and found that 95% of business was not ethical.

If this “private property” loophole is not addressed, the hostel operators will be having the last laugh while the workers helplessly go on enduring living in hovel like conditions running the serious risk of contracting and spreading infectious diseases which would inevitably spread to the local communities. What then?

When government abdicates its role in auditing the dorms independently, it becomes an accomplice to the hovel-like conditions in them and any spread of contagious diseases incubating therein. The price of such neglect, or abdication of responsibility, is very heavy.

All workers staying in hostels are supposed to be screened for infectious diseases. Has this been done?

Will governments take heed of Noor Hisham’s professional advice on overcrowding in the hostels, or will they continue helping hostel operators to reap maximum profits?

* Ravinder Singh reads The Malaysian Insight.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.

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