Our impact, Their voices

Reaching women migrant workers in Malaysia amid the COVID-19 health crisis

Support to undocumented workers during the pandemic is particularly challenging due to their migration status and language barrier. ILO Safe and Fair Programme helped undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia to have access to support and services during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Feature | 19 June 2020

Photo: UN Women/Pornvit Visitoran
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - Living and working in the shadows of society in Malaysia are among the worst affected during the COVID-19 pandemic. Migrant workers, in particular undocumented migrant workers experienced food and income insecurity as the Malaysian Government imposed lockdown measures or the ‘Movement Control Order’, forcing businesses to close and work to stop.
Undocumented migrant workers, many of whom were daily wage earners and work informally, faced sudden loss of income and employment as employers temporarily cease operations. Where businesses continue to operate, there have been reports of labour rights violation such as excessive working hours and non-compliance in terms of preventative measures (e.g. physical distancing) to prevent the spread of the virus. Access to health services for undocumented migrant workers, particularly important during a pandemic, was further constrained by fear of arrest and detention by law enforcement authorities due to their documentation status.

One day, there was an anonymous online message to a Migrant Resource Centre (MRC) operated by a women’s rights NGO named Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor (PSWS) with support from the ILO’s Safe and Fair Programme. MRC is a space where migrant workers and their families can visit to obtain information, training and counselling on safe migration, violence and harassment and trafficking. PSWS was informed that there are migrant workers needing assistance in several sawmills in Semenyih, a township in the southeast of Kuala Lumpur.
Ms. Xavier, PSWS Executive Director and her team visited three sawmills and the in workers’ quarters, or “kongsi” in the local language within the mill enclosure. Men migrant workers were employed to work in the sawmill while women worked on the side informally as cleaners.  Almost all workers did not have personal protective equipment such as masks and hand sanitizers, which are crucial to prevent COVID-19 infection. They were exposed to hazards as the Kongsi was located right next to the cutting machines, the stacks of logs and sawn planks. The Kongsi was filled with sawdust and mud.

Ms. Xavier found a woman who had given birth in the Kongsi seven days before, without the help of a midwife or medical assistance. The mother and her new born child did not have routine health service, including pre-natal and post-natal health care, access to clean, safe delivery and appropriate medical treatment. The PSWS provided the mother with food items to meet her immediate needs, and offered to take her and the baby to the hospital for a fully sponsored treatment covering health checks and vaccinations for her child. However, she declined the offer in fear of being arrested by law enforcement officials due to her undocumented status.

Without food, income and access to health facilities, migrant workers, particularly undocumented migrant workers are faced with the challenges for survival. Women migrant workers face additional challenges, as women tend to have higher risks of facing gender-based violence. In fact the Ministry of Women and Family Development reported that it saw 57% increase in calls to its helpline for survivors of domestic violence, though undocumented migrant workers would not be in the position to seek help, considering their undocumented status and also the language problem. In addition, women migrant workers may need to handle potentially life-threatening situations of delivering a baby on their own, may not have access to appropriate sanitation facilities to protect their reproductive health, and are mainly responsible for feeding family members in times of food insecurity, no income and no mobility.

The ILO has a number of international standards to promote and protect the rights of migrant workers, and Convention No. 143 on Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) sets the general obligation to respect the basic human rights of all migrant workers. The World Bank estimates that there are approximately 2.96 to 3.26 million documented and undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia. As in the case of the mother from the sawmill, many undocumented migrant workers experience challenges in accessing health services even when they face with life threatening situations. This is compounded by language barriers and the lack of access to credible information on support services.

COVID-19 does not discriminate; undocumented migrant workers cannot remain as the blind spots of Malaysia’s response to COVID-19. The fight against COVID-19 cannot come to a successful end until support services are extended to ensure the human rights and welfare of all migrant workers, regardless of their documentation status.

The ILO Safe and Fair Programme, as part of the Spotlight Initiative launched to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls, support the work of organizations like organizations and MRCs like PSWS to narrow the service gaps for women migrant workers, including undocumented women migrant workers. 

Success in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic is possible if the government, employers’ and workers’ organizations work together to integrate the issues of migrant workers, including the specific issues faced by women migrant workers in measures to respond to COVID-19 and rebuild the economy and create a better normal for all in Malaysia.

By Pichit Phromkade