Editorial| Legal Reform

Covid-19 Lessons: Rethinking Housing Standards For Migrant Workers In Malaysia

Migrant workers are among the most vulnerable in a pandemic. We look at current migrant workers living space standards and discuss implications for policy today.

By Jia Vern Tham | 20 May 2020


Bashor Ahmad, a migrant worker who lives in Selangor Mansion, shares a 900sq ft apartment unit with 15 other people. Commenting to The Star, he lamented that social distancing is near impossible to practice in such living conditions. “Everyone has just picked a corner to sit in and we hardly speak to one another”. 

Migrant workers around the world are among those most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and Malaysia’s is no exception. Citing Menara City One, the Selangor Mansion and Malayan Mansion flats as examples, Health Director General Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah has attributed new Covid-19 clusters among migrant workers to their dire and crowded living conditions.

More migrant worker Covid-19 clusters have since been reported, including one at the Selayang market, Pavilion Embassy construction site, and the Setia Alam construction site.  As of 10th May 2020, migrant workers account for 17% of total Covid-19 cases in Malaysia.

The authorities are trying to avoid a Singapore-like surge of infections which was fed by viral spreading within migrant worker dormitories. In the immediate term, Malaysia’s government appears to be prioritising high-risk migrant worker groups by providing testing to those in the construction and security guard sectors in the Klang Valley. A Federal Territory directive to stop migrant workers from working in wholesale markets has also been issued, though this will be very costly if not impracticable.

Ultimately, the root of the problem – namely migrant workers’ living conditions – will need to be addressed.


The reality of migrant workers’ living conditions

The case of Selangor Mansion provides one typical example of migrant workers’ living conditions in Malaysia. Each unit is approximately 800 to 900 square feet with 2 to 3 rooms. It has been reported that a unit houses an average of 10 migrant workers although other interviews reveal that up to 16 to 24 migrant workers can be found living in one unit.

Such concentrations leave between 38 to 56 square feet of living space for each worker. As shown in the simulation on the left below, social distancing is virtually impossible in such conditions. Minimising virus spread in a 900 square foot unit with 24 inhabitants would require everyone to literally "pick a corner" as Bashor aptly described and sit unmoving. In reality, though, human beings move around and in such tight quarters, viruses would spread naturally and quickly as shown on the right.


Current laws on migrant worker living conditions

According to Singaporean NGO Transient Workers Count Too, a typical 20-person dorm room for migrant workers in Singapore would allow 48.44 square feet of living space per person, which complies with Singapore’s requirements that stipulates a minimum of 48 square feet of living space.

Malaysia’s current migrant worker accommodation guidelines are similar. The standards include, amongst others: 

  • A minimum of 32.39 square feet for each worker’s sleeping area;
  • One toilet and one bathroom for every 15 workers, or one toilet and one separated bathroom with urinals for every 25 workers; and
  • A mattress for each worker that is at least 18.30 square feet. 

In July 2019, the Workers’ Minimum Standard of Housing and Amenities (Amendment) Bill was passed. Although the amendment contained important additional requirements, such as separate accommodations for workers of different genders amongst others, the guidelines for minimum living spaces remain as outlined above.

These standards stand in stark contrast to guidelines for other multi-person accommodations such as student hostels. Selangor’s student hostel guidelines, for example, stipulate a maximum of 8 inhabitants to dorm units measuring 850 square feet, allowing each resident 106.25 square feet of living space. The illustration below conveys the experiential difference between the living space guidelines for migrant workers vs. students:

The Covid-19 pandemic forces us to face the longstanding question of whether the country’s standards for migrant workers’ living conditions are safe and humane. The pandemic also makes us confront the issue of how standards are enforced.

Even if living space standards were improved, the law does not make it compulsory for employers to provide housing and accommodation to their employees. As a result, migrant workers in Malaysia mostly pay for their own accommodation and to save money, live in cramped units with numbers above what is allowed in current guidelines. Clearly, apart from having better standards, enforcement of the standards is going to be critical in a Covid-19 world.


Covid-19 and better migrant worker living conditions

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has stressed that sufficient indoor space is vital for health. In a Covid-19 world though, the notion of what constitutes sufficient living space needs to be revised, not only for purposes of personal well-being but also for public health considerations. The 2005 Sustainable Agriculture Network and Rainforest Alliance Standard recommend 53.82 square feet of sleeping space per person in dorms, which is higher than Malaysia’s current guidelines. Even this recommendation may need to be reviewed in the light of the pandemic.

As the authorities continue to effect immediate social distancing measures amongst migrant workers, such as reducing dorm density and moving workers into temporary spaces, policymakers would also need to put in place living space guidelines that are in line with the new normal of living with Covid-19.

We advocate raising the current minimums of migrant workers’ living space guidelines to levels advised and signed off by epidemiologists and public health authorities. We also urge a review of employer obligations on ensuring living space guidelines are adhered to, whether in a purpose-built dorm or in a low-cost flat.


How we treat migrant workers in the era of Covid-19

Housing migrant workers in a safe and humane way is only one of many aspects of the migrant worker issue to be considered amidst this global pandemic. Apart from minimum accommodation standards, access to healthcare as well as the treatment of undocumented migrants have raised the question of Malaysians’ responsibility towards migrant workers in these times. 

The state of detention centres
If captured, undocumented migrant workers face the additional risk of virus spread in crowded detention cells. Various first-person accounts of some of Malaysia’s detention centres detail extreme conditions as well as inhumane treatment.

In a 2017 report, the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) revealed that more than 100 foreigners had died in Malaysian detention centres, including from illness caused by poor sanitation and food, physical abuse, and a lack of medical attention.

Access to health services remains an issue for the community – important in pre-pandemic days but absolutely vital today. However, health screenings are fraught with risk, particularly for the undocumented as doctors are required to report them to the authorities. We agree with calls for a moratorium on immigration offenses until the end of the pandemic to encourage undocumented migrants with symptoms to come forward and receive care under quarantine.

There are over 2 million migrant workers in Malaysia, and an estimated 3 million who are undocumented. The imperative of containing the spread of Covid-19 has forced us to confront the true cost of longstanding policies and attitudes towards migrant workers’ living standards. Improving these standards is the right thing to do but it will also increase the cost of migrant labour particularly in heavily dependent sectors such as construction and plantations. A ‘new normal’ with regard to migrant worker employment will be one of the consequences of Covid-19 in Malaysia and around the world.