April marked the one-year anniversary since most countries in the world went into some form of lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19.
The pandemic first and foremost has exposed gaps in current labour practices towards low-skilled transient (migrant) workers across Southeast Asia, particularly in Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. These three countries are key destinations in Southeast Asia, with 91% of the region’s 6.5 million transient workers concentrated in these countries.
While ASEAN has a consensus enacted in 2017 which seeks to protect the rights of transient workers, it does not carry any legal weight, and thus arguably does little for those in the region.
Despite their longstanding contribution to the economic development of the region, transient workers, especially those in construction and manufacturing sectors, often suffer from inadequate access to healthcare and accommodation resources – causes that eventually contributed to Covid-19 outbreak among this community.
In Singapore, the migrant worker dormitories emerged as the primary outbreak hotspot between April to October 2020. In Thailand, over 3,000 Covid-19 cases out of 9,300 nationwide were connected to a wholesale seafood market in the coastal province of Samut Sakhon, where many Burmese migrants worked. In Malaysia, most infections were concentrated among transient workers in manufacturing industries, with the world’s largest rubber glove maker Top Glove forming the largest cluster.
A review of these issues and immediate efforts at addressing them may reveal what can be done as Southeast Asia moves forward into a pandemic-driven world.
Initial governmental responses to the outbreak within transient worker communities have, to a large extent, been surprisingly inadequate. Not only are transient workers unable to access healthcare resources as compared to local citizens in host countries, they are also often excluded from health and other social protection measures provided by their home country. To this end, transient workers are often encouraged by their home countries to ‘follow Covid-19 instructions’ in host countries, but are thus placed in a particularly vulnerable position in this unequal power play.
But greater care should be taken in portraying transient workers, especially in times of pandemic that strikingly surface the social fault lines between foreigners and locals.
In Thailand, Burmese transient workers in Samut Sakhon were blamed by Thai government officials for ‘importing’ the virus into the country. In pre-Covid times, transient workers were generally treated with disdain in host countries. What swiftly followed the outbreak was heightened anti-Burmese racism towards this already-marginalised community, as hate speech against Burmese workers infiltrated into online space at breakneck speed, which in turn fuelled real-world violence.
What was perhaps more consequential for the social security of Burmese workers in Thailand was the unequal access to healthcare and economic resources as compared to locals, with Burmese found to be denied access to essential services in the early days of the outbreak.
Instead of being treated in a government hospital, infected Burmese workers were initially instructed to quarantine together with uninfected workers. Many of them were also reportedly forced to stop work or displaced from their jobs without sufficient remuneration.
This has inevitably created a toxic culture of fear among the transient worker community, who are compelled into accepting ill-treatment at the expense of their well-being
This issue of insufficient remuneration for transient workers was also strikingly apparent in neighbouring Singapore during the early stages of the pandemic.
Despite the swift actions taken in quarantining infected migrant workers in dormitories, analysts and transient worker advocacy groups have raised serious concerns about the exclusion of workers from the early stages of preventive and remuneration measures in Singapore. These measures include the nationwide distribution of masks and sanitisers, as well as economic stimulus packages extended only to local citizens who have lost their income as a result of the pandemic.
Across the causeway, Malaysia also came under intense scrutiny for the Covid-19 woes among Top Glove workers, not least due to similarly inadequate immediate government response. At the peak of the outbreak, workers at Top Glove Malaysia, many of whom are from Nepal and Bangladesh, were coerced to continue working without being provided adequate protection.
While the Malaysian government’s response has been to increase fines and spot checks at the factory and its dormitories, little has been done to protect workers fired for exposing their employers’ violations of safety measures. This has inevitably created a toxic culture of fear among the transient worker community, who are compelled into accepting ill-treatment at the expense of their well-being.
Even as life for most citizens in Southeast Asia resumes to some semblance of normality, workers’ freedom to move remains severely restricted. In Thailand, ‘seal and bubble’ measures were implemented in Samut Sakhon to restrict workers’ movements between their dormitories and workplace for over two months earlier this year, whereas citizens could move freely within the province with a permit. While such segregation strategies have successfully slowed down community transmissions, restricting mobilities – a fundamental human right – needs to be implemented in ethical ways that take into account the dignity and wellbeing of workers.
Unfortunately, things do not look as sanguine for transient workers in Singapore. More than a year since circuit breaker in the country, transient workers, save for most foreign domestic workers, remain practically immobilised with no end in sight, as workers are restricted from leaving their dormitories without permission. Like the ‘seal and bubble’ measure in Thailand, workers in Singapore’s dormitories continue to be segregated from the community, apart from controlled visits to a recreational facility up to three times a week. Foreign domestic workers in the country are also advised to spend their days off in their employers’ homes.
Some may argue that such mobility restrictions are necessary to curb the pandemic. According to the Covid-19 taskforce in Singapore, taking a ‘cautious approach’ to easing restrictions for transient workers is necessary – at least till vaccination is widespread – given that dormitories remain potential sites for fresh outbreaks.
Protecting transient workers’ social security needs to begin from the national level if Southeast Asia wishes to move past its image of a region with rampant negligence and human rights oversight
Yet, these differential mobility restrictions are more than just about the spatial reorganisation of citizen and migrant bodies. More often than not, they are accompanied by hidden social and ethical implications that further entrench the precarious position of transient workers. Some foreign domestic workers have been found to be unfairly compensated by their employers, who neglect to offer off-days or compensate for imposing additional workload. Regrettably, several embassies and advocacy groups have also reported a rise in runaways, attempted suicides, deaths and self-harm among transient workers, including foreign domestic workers, during the outbreak.
The task of protecting transient workers’ social security needs to begin from the national level if Southeast Asia wishes to move past its image of a region with rampant negligence and human rights oversight. Doing so could hold relevant ministries and private stakeholders to greater collective accountability compared to a regional consensus undergirded by ill-defined moral principles.
As a case in point, Singapore has seen greater government-led efforts in securing the welfare of transient workers since the early days of Covid-19 outbreak. From April 2021, foreign domestic workers in Singapore will receive regular visits from Ministry of Manpower officers who conduct random checks on their living and working conditions.
While such efforts may not be easily translated to other ASEAN countries, this example ultimately demonstrates how the shared endeavour to ameliorate the precarity of transient workers could begin from the legislative structures in host countries.
Until ASEAN states can come to an agreement in transforming the existing regional consensus into a legally binding document with specific markers of fair treatment, leaders of home and host countries should be proactive in drawing policies that protect transient workers.
This will involve making consistent and sustainable commitments to improve transient worker social security, rather than putting their welfare in the backburner once it is off the headlines as we move into a pandemic-driven world.
Fanzura Banu is a Research Officer at the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. She is also Associate Editor of SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia. Shee Siew Ying is a Research Associate at the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore. A geographer by training, her research interests include identity politics and urban social justice issues.