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Singapore's Coronavirus Outbreak Sends Malaysia Scrambling to Test Migrant Workers 

Police officers wearing protective suits pick up an illegal immigrant from an apartment under enhanced lockdown, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, May 1, 2020.
Police officers wearing protective suits pick up an illegal immigrant from an apartment under enhanced lockdown, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, May 1, 2020.

Singapore's brimming dormitories for migrant workers have sparked a wave of infections; Malaysia fears its own migrant dorms and hostels may do the same.

Malaysia is scrambling to test millions of migrants for the coronavirus to avoid a repeat of the outbreak that has hit neighboring Singapore, where foreign workers crammed into teeming dormitories now account for most of its confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Weeks into the pandemic, Singapore was lauded for its efforts to keep the highly contagious virus in check by acting early, leveling with its citizens about the risks and practicing a meticulous contact tracing regime. By mid-April, though, outbreaks in the largely neglected dormitories housing the country's hundreds of thousands of migrant workers were sending its coronavirus caseload soaring. The tiny city-state now has the most confirmed COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia by far at over 21,000.

Malaysia by contrast has confirmed 6,535 cases, less than 1,000 of them among migrants.

Like Singapore, though, the country leans heavily on cheap labor from nearby countries to fill its factories and raise its skyline. Many also work its rubber and palm plantations. The government says some 2.5 million migrants are in the country legally, though just as many may be here illegally. Also like Singapore, many of Malaysia's migrant workers are packed into large dorms or hostels sleeping 10 to 20 people to a room — sometimes more — with one bathroom among them.

"It's a very risky situation," said migrant labor rights advocate Andy Hall.

"These hostels are not designed with a decent way of living in mind, and they're incredibly congested," he said.

Clearly worried that Malaysia's coronavirus count might also spiral out of control, the Health Ministry on April 20 said it was learning from Singapore by placing Kuala Lumpur neighborhoods with cases of COVID-19 among migrant workers under tight lockdown and ramping up testing of residents in those areas.

“We learnt from our neighbor country to accelerate the action so that we can control the virality of positive cases and in dealing with the COVID-19 infection from the noncitizen group,” the ministry's director-general, Noor Hisham Abdullah, said at the time.

On May 4, following a spike in coronavirus cases traced mostly to noncitizens, the government decided on a much more muscular response. It ordered that all migrant workers be tested across the country.

The effort will take months. Malaysia is currently testing about 15,000 people a day. At that rate it will take more than five months to test every registered migrant worker in the country, assuming all test kits are used on them alone, which they are not. Moreover, that's not counting the millions of migrants here illegally.

The day after the order to test all migrants, the Malaysian Medical Association warned that a sudden push would overwhelm the country's laboratories and turn into a "logistical nightmare." It suggested more targeted testing and putting greater effort into enforcing social distancing rules where migrants work and live.

Sumitha Shaanthinni Kishna, director of Malaysian migrant worker rights group Our Journey, said she was "very, very concerned" that the brimming dorms and hostels may yet prove the seedbed for a new wave of coronavirus cases, as they did in Singapore.

Besides the congestion, she said, "these places that they live [don't] have proper running water sometimes. The hygiene level is quite low, so that is why we are really concerned about the housing places of these people."

Ironically, much of the fear of an outbreak among Malaysia's migrants stems from the country's dominant rubber glove industry, which makes nearly 2 in every 3 pairs of the gloves in the world, including those protecting front-line health care workers. The factories run mostly on migrant labor.

In a Labor Day video to employees, industry heavyweight Top Glove said it was checking workers' temperatures daily, keeping them supplied with masks and gloves, disinfecting work sites and enforcing social distancing "to ensure you are always safe and well protected."

Health experts, rights advocates and workers themselves are just as worried about where they sleep.

"We feel scared because we stay with 25 people in the same room," a Top Glove worker from Nepal told VOA on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from the company.

"We work in different departments and have contact with different people. Sometimes we work with locals who come from outside. And sometimes on the days off the people in the hostel go outside and meet other people. So I definitely feel scared about getting COVID-19. I don't feel protected," the worker said.

Six days a week, after every 12-hour shift, he takes a crowded company bus back to a company-owned hostel on the outskirts of the capital. Inside, reams of laundry hang limp from the metal frames of a dozen or so bunk beds lining the bare walls. Without a kitchen, the workers cook their meals on the floor, and share a single bathroom. A few wall-mounted fans do a poor job of keeping the room cool.

Social distancing, the man said, was "impossible."

He said the room had not been disinfected and that Top Glove has told them nothing about getting the workers tested. At work, the company gives them gloves and masks and sanitizer, but keeps them lined up in tight lines at the factory entrance for the temperature checks at the start of every shift, and does a checkered job of maintaining social distancing rules once they're inside. Videos shared by workers bear the account out.

Top Glove and the Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers Association, which represents Top Glove and the rest of the industry, both refused requests for an interview.

Rights groups have long called for better work and living conditions for the country's army of migrant labor. Now that the coronavirus has exposed the risks that neglecting them can pose to the population at large, authorities, employers and their customers should start to take them more seriously, said Hall, the migrant labor rights advocate.

"Everyone's learning that ... in the day and age of these contagious diseases these kind of dormitories and the conditions in which workers are working in are a risk to the public health of the whole population," he said.

"So I think that's the longer-term issue ... that these workers need to be in conditions which are more hygienic and they have more space," he said.