Malaysia’s COVID Woes Spotlight ‘Terrible’ Migrant Worker Housing

(VOA News) – Malaysia is pressing companies to quickly upgrade staff housing after a major outbreak of COVID-19 in the teeming dormitories for migrant workers providing the world with personal protective equipment, something labor rights groups had been warning of for months.

The country counted a record 2,188 COVID-19 cases on November 24, most linked to company dorms for migrant workers at Top Glove, the world’s leading latex glove maker.

The next day, Defense Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced that authorities would start enforcing new worker housing rules right away, and imposing fines of some $12,300 for every employee in substandard accommodation.

Human Resource Minister Saravanan Murugan followed up by calling some of the country’s dorm conditions “terrible” after personally visiting a few sites. Days later, on December 1, his ministry announced 19 investigations into six Top Glove subsidiaries, mostly for failing to furnish migrant workers with proper housing.

A tough act to follow

Act 446 was passed into law in July 2019 and took effect this past September 1, extending employee housing standards that had applied to mine and plantation employers only — including minimum dorm space per worker — to all sectors.

The Human Resource Ministry’s Labor Department is now conducting surprise inspections across the country, said Rhymie bin Mohamad Ramli, the department’s senior assistant director.

“Errant employers will be taken action [against] accordingly as per the Act. As such, completed investigation dossiers [have] been referred to the Deputy Public Prosecutors office for further action,” he told VOA.

Labor rights groups had been complaining about the cramped and dirty conditions many companies force their migrant workers to live in for years and welcomed the expanded housing rules.