I was astonished to read that 73.9% of employers – or 10,961 firms – inspected by the human resources ministry have not complied with the Workers’ Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act 1990 (Act 446).
My astonishment was not over the fact that many employers, especially in the manufacturing and construction sectors, provide poor or inadequate housing and facilities for their employees- mostly foreign workers – but the fact that little has been done by the government all this while.
It has taken a pandemic to awaken us to the sordid conditions under which many workers who help our economy grow live. There’s no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has forced all of us – especially the government – to sit up and pay attention.
The figure was revealed by deputy human resources minister Awang Hashim on April 18. He said the Labour Department had conducted inspections on 14,835 employers nationwide, involving 95,870 accommodation units from Feb 1 to April 15.
“Of the total employers inspected, only 3,874 or 26.1% of them met the criteria,” he said, adding: “A total of 625 investigation papers were opened for various offences, including accommodation not certified by the Labour Department director-general, non-compliance with local authority laws and not providing rest and dining areas to employees.”
The government amended Act 446 in 2019 to further strengthen employee protection. Among other things, employers or centralised accommodation providers are required to ensure water and electricity supply and to keep the maximum number of employees sharing a bathroom and toilet at six if it’s not a dormitory and 15 if it’s a dormitory. There must be dining and kitchen areas and the sleeping space must have a minimum floor area of three square metres for each employee if the provided accommodation is a dormitory.
The amendments were to have come into effect on June 1, 2020 but on May 27, human resources minister M Saravanan announced that it would be postponed to Sept 1, 2020 “to give space to employers to make the necessary preparations.”
On Nov 25, senior minister for security Ismail Sabri Yaakob said the human resources ministry would begin enforcing the amendments to Act 446 the following day.
And yesterday, Saravanan said the government had agreed to relax enforcement of Act 446 until the end of the year following calls from employers suffering from the ill-effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. He added: “Even though we give them room, they (employers) must start (preparing) from now. Don’t wait until we start enforcing (the law) in December to start building homes (for the workers).”
So many postponements.
My question is what were officials of the human resources ministry and related agencies doing since 1990 when the principal Act was gazetted? Weren’t the agencies and departments responsible for worker welfare monitoring the situation?
If they were monitoring the situation, why was no action taken earlier? Corruption? If they weren’t monitoring the situation, why not? Incompetence?
If action had been taken earlier against errant employers, the large number of work-related Covid-19 clusters could have been avoided. If action had been taken earlier, we may not have had to endure long periods of movement restrictions under the movement control order, the conditional movement control order and the enhanced movement control order.
There simply have been too many Covid-19 cases involving workers living or working in cramped conditions in the cities and industrial areas.
By contrast, the incidence of Covid-19 is lower among estate workers and this is largely because they are provided better housing and healthcare.
I fail to understand why employers in estates can follow most if not all of the conditions laid out in Act 446 but other employers, especially those in the construction and manufacturing sectors, cannot?
Estates which are members of the Malayan Agricultural Producers Association or MAPA provide proper housing and amenities to their workers. Good examples of this are Sime Darby Plantation and Oriental Holdings.
I was talking to Mohd Ghani Abdullah, a senior medical assistant at an estate in Perak, who told me that accommodations for workers in estates had three rooms and an internal toilet and bathroom. Each unit usually houses a maximum of four to five workers.
Most of the accommodation provided are semi-detached houses and usually come with facilities such as a badminton court, a football field, and a community hall, apart from houses of worship.
In addition, water and electricity are provided at subsidised rates and all repairs to the houses are done by the estate management.
Ghani, who has been working in the estate sector for more than 40 years, said: “All estates have visiting medical officers who visit the estate weekly or monthly to monitor the health and welfare of estate workers.”
In addition, MAPA estates have medical assistants or hospital assistants (HA) who take care of the day-to-day medical needs of workers and also ensure that health and hygiene measures are practised in the estate.
“Once every week, the medical assistant or HA will visit the workers accommodations, what we call the lineside, to ensure the place is clean. This includes ensuring the drains are clear, rubbish has been collected and there are no breeding grounds for mosquitoes.”
The HA has to send a weekly report on the health situation to the management.
Rubbish is collected three times a week by licenced contractors and sent to the local council’s dumpsite for disposal, and the estate pays the local authority for this.
Ghani said with the pandemic causing fear, estate managements had taken additional measures to stop the spread of the virus. All workers, for instance, have been screened for Covid-19.
Workers’ houses are sanitised once in two weeks and all vehicles are sanitised daily. Estates have to send a weekly report to the ministry of international trade and industry on how they are faring in the fight against the pandemic, including details on screening of workers and sanitising of vehicles.
Most managements are paying salaries in cash to their workers, instead of putting it in the individual worker’s bank account. This is to lower the risk of catching Covid-19 as they now don’t have to go into town to withdraw their salary from ATM machines.
Some estates even help their foreign workers repatriate money to their home country: either a staff member will go out and do it for them or the management will get an agent to come to the estate and get it done. Again, this is to reduce the risk of catching the disease.
Ghani said estates had to follow very stringent health and environment protection rules under the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil Certification Scheme. Officials come regularly to carry out audits on the estates. Among other things, they check on the welfare of workers, including if their salaries are paid on time, and also if there is open burning or other damage to the environment.
So, if estates can successfully implement Act 446, why can’t other employers? Why is the government lenient with them?
Employers and the government cannot afford to be lax as, according to some public health experts, we are likely to see more such zoonotic diseases in the future.
More importantly, it is just not right to treat fellow human beings as numbers or inconsequential, even if they happen to be non-citizens.