Ensure migrant workers’ right to vaccination

Josh Hong

Many undocumented workers choose not to seek medical assistance despite being ill or suffering from contagious diseases, let alone make themselves available for Covid-19 tests. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, May 24, 2021.

A FRIEND in Taiwan recently forwarded to me an announcement by the country’s national immigration agency urging all migrant workers who had been in and around Wanhua district of Taipei, the capital city that has seen a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases in the past two weeks, to come forward for Covid-19 tests and, in the case of infection, treatment.

It also reiterated that all the services provided were free of charge, and that the health authority would not submit any of their medical information to the police.

Given that the vast majority of the migrant workers in Taiwan hail from Southeast Asia, the announcement is also available in Bahasa Indonesia, Burmese, Khmer, Thai and Vietnamese, in addition to Chinese and English, and users only need to scan the barcode to access the relevant information.

That was very thoughtful of the Taiwanese authorities, I thought to myself.

At the same time, Thailand, which has been rather exemplary in containing the virus until quite recently, is now beset with rising numbers by the day. According to the Bangkok Post, migrant workers make up as much as 30% of the confirmed cases in some areas, while new clusters have been detected in many construction sites and markets, a situation not too dissimilar from what has been happening in Malaysia.

Samut Sakhon, about an hour from Bangkok by car, is a huge and famous seafood market and the labour demand there is an important factor that attracts migrant workers. It is estimated that the migrant worker population is about 400,000, mostly from the neighbouring Myanmar and living in crowded and appalling conditions, a reason why there were severe outbreaks of Covid-19 in Samut Sakhon in late 2020 and early this year.

Although Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha, just like some Malaysian politicians, pointed his finger at migrant workers for the surge in an attempt to divert public attention, one must acknowledge that Thailand did impose an immediate lockdown in the beginning and put in place an efficient system of contact tracing, while allowing each and every individual to access public health services, especially Covid-19 tests, the undocumented population included. Thus, the total number of positive cases remains far lower than that of Malaysia as of now.

In comparison to Taiwan and Thailand, Malaysia has not been too kind, nor friendly, to migrant workers when it comes to providing medical services. After nearly 20 years, the Health Circular 10/2001 remains in use and all medical practitioners are obliged to report to the police and immigration department any patient who is an “illegal immigrant”.

The inhumane instruction has over the past two decades given rise to a situation in which undocumented workers have chosen not to seek medical assistance despite being ill or suffering from contagious diseases, let alone make themselves available for Covid-19 tests.

Even many refugees with a refugee card issued by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, would not approach government health facilities unless absolutely necessary, for fear that any miscommunication would land them in trouble, or that some health workers with a bad attitude might report them to the police.

While UNHCR may be able to secure their release eventually, the shock and anxiety would be something that is best left unexperienced. After all, viruses spread faster in police lockups, which are, more often than not, filthy and unhygienic.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), for instance, once revealed that “patients from the Rohingya and other refugee communities also report leaving hospitals or absconding during treatment after being threatened (with) arrest”. Among the cases that the MSF has handled, there was even one refugee who was arrested and detained for two months after she tried to register her pregnancy at a government clinic.

Without dismissing the efforts of many of the front liners currently battling the pandemic, the inhumanity suffered by the particular refugee woman left me flabbergasted, nonetheless. Seen in this light, the pledge by the Taiwan’s national immigration agency to not report undocumented migrants to the authorities is simply inconceivable in the Malaysian context.

Now that Malaysia is entering a critical phase of the pandemic with thousands of cases detected on a daily basis, the welfare of the migrant workers is of paramount importance. If anything, their well-being would serve as a safety net for Malaysian society as a whole considering how much our economy depends on them.

While Khairy Jamaluddin, the Science, Technology and Innovation Minister responsible for the coordination of the national immunisation programme, did promise that all migrant workers and refugees would receive vaccinations regardless of their immigration status, concrete measures are yet to be announced.

The Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers has already requested that employers be allowed to register their migrant workers for vaccination, as it would reduce red tape and assure migrant workers of their right to it.

The government ought to do more to demonstrate its goodwill for migrant workers, refugees, asylum-seekers, the stateless persons, as well as foreign spouses.

First and foremost, the raids against the undocumented population must stop. Instead, an amnesty should be granted as a way to encourage undocumented persons to seek medical assistance and be tested.

This should be followed by clear procedures and details on vaccination, which in turn must be translated into the various languages of the migrant communities so that they would be able to access accurate information.

If we fail to carry out these two tasks, my worry is, even if we are able to speed up the process of vaccination, it would still not be sufficient to cover the large migrant communities, as a result of which we might end up defeating the purpose of containing the virus, especially when one considers as much as 70% of the 24,000 workers’ accommodations inspected by the Ministry of Human Resources were not in compliance with the Workers’ Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities (Amendment) Act 2019.

If this comes to pass, Malaysians may continue to scapegoat the migrant workers for the failure to overcome the pandemic, without knowing that it could very well be the outcome of a selfish and short-sighted policy. – May 24, 2021.

* Josh Hong is a keen watcher of domestic and international politics, who longs for the day when Malaysians master the art of self-mockery. He has spent the last 15 years trying to win his feline friends’ favour as he considers it an endeavour more worthwhile than trusting politicians, aspiring also to be a tea and coffee connoisseur.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

Sign up or sign in here to comment.