As Malaysia is moving to ease a lengthy coronavirus lockdown, the government will be keeping an eye on one particular group of people: foreign workers. With more and more businesses allowed to reopen in the coming days and weeks after a nationwide lockdown that was put in place on March 18, all foreign workers will be subject to mandatory testing around the predominantly Muslim nation. “[We will] make it compulsory for all foreign workers in all sectors, whether in construction, factories, commercial and including restaurants, to undergo Covid-19 screening,” Senior Minister Ismail Sabri said. Employers will need to pay for testing foreign workers as the lockdown is being eased up, starting in Kuala Lumpur. The government has justified its demand for having all foreign workers tested by citing the example of neighboring Singapore where numerous migrant workers were found to have been infected with Covid-19.
Most foreign laborers in Singapore are housed in crowded dormitories that are breeding grounds for the virus. Nearly 90 percent of Singapore’s almost 19,000 infections to date have been detected among foreign workers. As of May 5, only 18 people had died of Covid-19 in the city state. In neighboring Malaysia most migrant workers live in overcrowded conditions in low-rent accommodation. The country, which has a population of 31 million, employs more than two million registered foreign workers. There are likely another two million migrant workers who are unregistered, according to estimates. It remains in doubt how the government can enforce testing on unregistered foreign workers who often live in the shadows. The migrant workers, who come largely from countries with large populations of impoverished people such as Indonesia and Myanmar, are routinely employed in Malaysia’s construction industry and in other areas of unskilled work. Malaysia has recorded some 6,300 infections and slightly over 100 deaths with progressively fewer cases in recent weeks. Last weekend, however, 227 new infections were found among migrant workers in Kuala Lumpur, including a wholesale market with a large population of such workers. The newly discovered infections reignited fears that the pandemic could spiral out of control in Kuala Lumpur and other heavily populated areas. In recent days Malaysian authorities have arrested hundreds of migrant workers and asylum seekers for staying illegally in the country. Malaysia regards people seeking refugee status as undocumented migrants. Last weekend the authorities conducted immigration raids in an area of Kuala Lumpur where thousands of undocumented foreigners are known to live in crowded conditions. Scores of Rohingya asylum seekers who have fled their homes in Myanmar in the face of an onslaught by the military were among those detained. On social media many Malaysians have been railing against migrant workers and asylum seekers like the Rohingya, accusing them of spreading Covid-19. Rights activists, meanwhile, have decried the detention of asylum seekers. “[The] Malaysian government does a U-turn on its earlier pledge not to arrest and detain undocumented migrants,” Lilianne Fan, chair of the Rohingya Working Group at the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, said in a statement. “Children as young as one year old have also been detained.” The heavy-handed treatment of migrant workers and asylum seekers risks undermining the government’s plan to test all of them for traces of the coronavirus, Fan warned. “This will create a culture of fear precisely when we need to be encouraging people to come forward for testing,” she said. “How does this make us safer?”
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