A case for improving labour conditions in Southeast Asia
It has been well-known for a long time that Bangladeshi migrant workers in the Middle East and South Asian countries are at the receiving end of all sorts of uncertainties one can think of. Some of them incur a debt burden from the recruitment process, face many hazards and health risks—and more so during the pandemic—and then are the subject of moderate to serious deprivations. International human rights advocates including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have tried from time to time to draw the attention of the host governments and Bangladesh to these violations, but it is not clear whether these have fallen on deaf ears.
A few weeks ago, this newspaper, citing a recent ESCAP study, reported that migrant workers in Southeast Asia "are more likely to be exposed to the virus, lack access to health care and other essential services, be stranded in countries without work or social protection and face rising xenophobia." As if to validate the study, a news item in South China Morning Post earlier this month reported that a Bangladeshi migrant worker, Hasibur Rahman, is suing his ex-employer and dormitory operator in Singapore accusing them of "false imprisonment" after he was locked in his room during the coronavirus outbreak. This news resonated with me since I have been following from time to time accounts of the poor working and living conditions migrant workers are subjected to in the construction industry in Singapore and Malaysia.
In Singapore, as of December 2019, low-skilled migrant workers account for 555,100 of its population of 5.6 million. News of the treatment generally meted out by employers in Singapore is nothing new. In 2014, The Guardian ran a feature under the title "Singapore needs to address its treatment of migrant workers" and warned that "unrest is spreading among Singapore's migrants over working conditions. How can a country of millionaires justify failing to act?"
I don't mean to single out Singapore as the only country that is treating its migrant workforce as second-class citizens. Migrants form the backbone of the labour force in other countries of Southeast Asia including Malaysia and Brunei, drawing workers from Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. They all have witnessed the harsh living conditions and lack of basic amenities in their dorms and "labour camps". As one of the biggest economies in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is an attractive destination for workers from neighbouring countries seeking better wages and employment. The country is thought to have at least five million migrant workers—including two million who are here illegally—which is more than a third of its workforce. Bangladeshis make up between 300,000 and 500,000 of them. The migrant labourers are mostly in concentrated industries that locals shun as 3-D, i.e. "dirty, dangerous and difficult".
Last year, from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, the Covid-19 pandemic exposed "the unique vulnerabilities of the world's estimated 164 million low-paid migrant workers, who toil at the jobs locals do not want, to save money and get a leg up back home." A new WHO study, published on December 18, 2020 on the International Migrants Day, reveals that the pandemic has had a highly negative impact on the living and working conditions of refugees and migrants. In Singapore, Bangladeshis constituted almost half of the migrants infected with Covid-19, and their situation has been compounded by poor living conditions, insufficient legal protection and limited access to healthcare. Overall, migrant workers' infections were three times higher during Covid-19. According to a report in Prothom Alo, more than seventy thousand Bangladeshis were infected in 186 countries by July 2020. By December 27, some 2,330 Bangladeshi migrants had succumbed to Covid-19 in 21 countries.
The Covid-19 crisis led Malaysians to take advantage of the Bangladeshis. Thousands of migrant workers reportedly lost their jobs. ILO said in a report that there were cases of migrant workers being unfairly terminated or not getting paid when Malaysia's nationwide coronavirus lockdown was first imposed in March. It was reported on May 26, 2020 that police rounded up 200 undocumented workers in one week alone in Petaling Jaya, outside Kuala Lumpur, even as officials gradually eased movement restrictions. CNBC warned last November that "neglect of migrant workers could hurt Malaysia's economic recovery."
Coming back to the story of Hasibur Rahman, a construction worker, who has filed a claim for USD 163,000 in damages, according to documents submitted in court and seen by AFP. Staff at his dormitory had locked Hasibur and up to 20 other workers in their room on April 19, after one of their roommates was thought to have contracted the virus and was transferred to a medical facility. During this time, they were only able to use the toilet by calling a guard to come and escort them. Some of the men were running fevers and the room was hot and poorly ventilated, the documents said.
In Malaysia, authorities arrested Mohamed Rayhan Kabir, a Bangladeshi, in retaliation for his criticism of government policies towards migrants in an Al Jazeera documentary. His work permit was cancelled and he was eventually deported. Malaysia does not recognise refugees and there are high levels of distrust of those who come from abroad, often working as low-paid labourers. Some accused migrant workers of spreading the coronavirus and being a burden on government resources. The government's public attacks on Kabir, at a time of rising xenophobia in Malaysia, serve to fan the flames of intolerance, Human Rights Watch said.
Last September, BBC ran a story titled "Covid-19 Singapore: A 'pandemic of inequality' exposed", which focussed on the harsh conditions migrant workers face. "Their right to live in Singapore is tied to their job and their employer must provide accommodation, at a cost. They commute from their dorms in packed vans to building sites where they work and take breaks alongside men from other crowded dorms—perfect conditions for the virus to spread."
It was recently reported that Malaysia would allow, until June 2021, undocumented migrants to sign up to work in construction, plantations, agriculture and manufacturing, or they may choose to return to their home countries. This may be a mixed blessing for the migrant workers, according to Irene Xavier, co-founder of Sahabat Wanita Selangor, a local group assisting migrant workers. "It appears they are answering the call from some industries that want migrant workers—it's not crafted with the interest of the workers in mind, that's clear."
Even as migration for construction work provides an income opportunity to improve the standards of living back home for Bangladeshi migrants and their families, the rising costs of migration, high risks of accidents, and flexible hiring practices in the industry have made this venture particularly precarious. Apart from having to pay exorbitant agent fees to access skills training, testing, and job placement services, Bangladeshi migrants face additional challenges at their workplace, such as job insecurity, low wages, weak bargaining power, as well as various occupational hazards in the construction industry.
Social advocates have rightly urged Bangladesh government to engage in diplomacy with host countries to ensure Bangladeshi workers are not being deprived of their rights. With nearly 8 million of its 160 million residents living abroad, Bangladesh has one of the world's largest emigrant populations, ranking only behind India, Mexico, China, Russia, and Syria, according to estimates from the United Nations' Population Division.
On December 18, 2020, the International Migrants' Day, The Daily Star showcased a new report from ESCAP circulated in preparation for the first Asia-Pacific Regional Review of Implementation of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) scheduled to take place in March 2021. The report alerts all stakeholders that Covid-19 will continue to have an impact on people and communities on the move in the near future. As vaccines are approved, the report underlines that the inclusion of migrants in vaccination programmes, including migrants in irregular situations, will be critical.
Another way of looking at it: the host governments need to realise that migrant workers are akin to the proverbial "golden goose" and continued mistreatment of these workers will be like killing the goose that lays golden eggs. Improving labour conditions is in the interest of both migrant workers and their host countries.
Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist and currently works in information technology. He is also Senior Research Fellow, International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank in Boston, USA.