Better accommodation for migrant workers long overdue

Josh Hong

While Human Resources Minister Saravanan’s push for integrated and centralised labour quarters for migrant workers is commendable, the key will be whether the government can successfully implement the model. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, December 20, 2021.

HUMAN Resources Minister M. Saravanan recently launched Malaysia’s first integrated and centralised labour quarter (ICLQ) in Pasir Gudang, Johor, with a view to promoting and ensuring modern, safe and hygienic accommodation for migrant workers in Malaysia.

The raging Covid-19 pandemic over the past two years has exposed the cruel reality of insanitary, and poor working and living conditions of migrant workers all over the world, making it easier for the virus to spread among them and prompting governments to seriously tackle the issue of workers’ accommodation.

Therefore, ICLQs become a popular model to be studied and implemented.

In fact, ICLQs are nothing new. As early as 2012, when the construction of Kuala Lumpur MRT Line 1 started, many of the contractors already provided migrant workers with centralised accommodation.

At that time, I had a chance to visit some of the dormitories around the now Cochrane MRT station, the environment and conditions of which were satisfactory.

It was a far cry from the cramped, dirty and shoddy makeshift living quarters that continue to characterise many of the construction sites today.

It is heartening to know the construction of MRT Line 2 maintains the same models and standards.

There are regulations for workers’ accommodation, but the lack of enforcement has made them ineffective.

The difference of ICLQ is that it is a professionally managed dormitory model that is increasingly adopted in many advanced countries around the world.

The biggest advantage is that the ICLQ is built on the concept of a community and serves far more than just accommodation, as it is also equipped with clinics, convenience stores, ATM machines, leisure facilities and even remittance service centres, all of which are in line with the recommendations of the International Labour Standards on Occupational Safety and Health.

Overall, ICLQs are more ideal and worker-friendly than the Penang government’s use of vacant shophouses and commercial buildings as workers’ dormitories.

After all, the latter’s safety specifications may not meet international standards and lack professional management, which can easily lead to a harsh and dirty environment that could render migrant workers vulnerable to virus infection.

The havoc wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the general public’s negative impression of migrant workers, but the root cause of the problem actually lies in their horrible working and living conditions, as well as gross negligence on the part of their employers.

However, this model is not without potential problems. For example, the number of documented migrant workers in Malaysia is as high as 2 million, and their employers are mostly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Considering the high costs in building ICLQs, many of the SMEs simply do not have strong financial means to adopt the model.

Thus, they are more likely to continue to rent low-cost flats or affordable terrace houses and use them as accommodation.

Moreover, as this model gains greater popularity, it will inevitably become another lucrative business, with more and more private companies being interested in managing and operating ICLQs in return for huge sums of money, thereby creating a property boom that may not necessarily benefit lower income groups.

Once the model becomes profit-orientated, especially when the owner provides the services based on fees collected per head, it would be inevitable to see excessive numbers of workers cramped into a room, violating Malaysia’s basic personal accommodation standards and even international standards.

The Covid-19 outbreak in migrant workers’ dormitories in Singapore early last year also exposed the irony of how privately managed workers’ dormitories have become a business, a situation that must be avoided at all costs, especially when migrant workers in Malaysia are predominantly found in labour-intensive sectors such as construction and manufacturing.

The pandemic over the past two years has been a crisis, but it is also an opportunity. It has made the Malaysian government realise that it is necessary to improve the working and living conditions of migrant workers, otherwise the country will only become notorious internationally because of forced labour.

Saravanan’s initiative for better workers’ accommodation is worthy of commendation.

However, the key to success is whether the government can properly implement the ICLQ model, as well as supervise and manage them effectively for a long time without turning it into a money-making machine to the detriment of all except for contractors tasked with providing the services. – December 20, 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.

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