Transient Workers Count Too submitted a letter to the Forum pages of the Straits Times on the subject of vulnerabilities of migrant workers in the time of Covid-19. It was published on Monday, 23 March 2020:

23 March 2020
Straits Times Forum

Employers’ practices leave foreign workers vulnerable to infection

With Covid-19 now expected to be a danger for many more months, preparedness for various scenarios is key. One possibility is that a cluster breaks out at a foreign worker dormitory.

The recent scramble to find accommodation for Malaysian workers stuck here when Malaysia closed its border suggests that we do not have enough spare capacity in dorms, without which, moving people around to ensure self-isolation may prove difficult.

Currently, foreign workers are housed 12 to 20 men per room in double-decker beds. They are transported to work on the back of lorries sitting shoulder to shoulder. Neither of these conditions conforms with social distancing.

The risk of a new cluster among this group remains undeniable.

While it may be unrealistic to build additional dormitories in mere weeks or months, we call on the Government to announce in advance what plans they have to rehouse workers should clusters break out in dorms. This would give reassurance to the resident and non-resident community.

Going forward, any new dormitory should require more space per head and no more than four persons to a room. New rules can also be put in place immediately regarding the maximum number of persons per lorry.

There is another vulnerability, not often known to the public. Some employers of foreign workers have a company policy that imposes fines that are several times a worker’s daily salary for failing to show up at work. We have also heard of employers who refuse to recognise medical leave of more than one or two days’ duration.

Such measures discourage workers from seeing a doctor when ill; they also require sick workers to remain at work despite symptoms.

We know the law requires employers to recognise medical leave, but, in our view, enforcement is insufficient and post-facto. On the question of docking wages and imposing fines, we believe the law is silent.

We call on the Ministry of Manpower to provide suitable accommodation for workers and to put a stop to such practices.

Covid-19 will not be the last infectious disease to be of concern.

Deborah D. Fordyce