Migrant worker accommodation standards in ASEAN need further improvement

A new report by the ILO highlights migrant worker living standards in Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia and the steps needed to ensure decent and adequate accommodation.

Press release | 10 March 2022
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BANGKOK, Thailand (ILO News) – Despite some improvements made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, accommodation standards for migrant workers in the ASEAN region remain low and need urgent attention, according to a new report released by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Home truths – Access to adequate housing for migrant workers in the ASEAN region provides a detailed overview of migrant worker accommodation standards and issues in Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.

Amongst the main findings are that the space allocated to each migrant worker in accommodation provided by employers such as dormitories remains too small.

In Malaysia and Thailand migrant workers in certain accommodation types are provided just 3 m2 of space – the same amount deemed necessary in humanitarian crisis situations. Singapore revised standards in September 2021 to provide each worker at least 4.2 m2 of living space in new dormitories, yet this still falls short of levels provided for seasonal workers in New Zealand or for workers building Qatar’s World Cup infrastructure.

The need for migrant workers to be provided sufficient living area was illustrated by the COVID-19 pandemic where physical distancing and hygiene measures necessary to reduce the risk and spread of infection were often impossible in certain migrant worker housing. In addition to the threat of COVID-19 transmission, inadequate housing and overcrowding can also lead to conflict or tensions between residents, domestic violence and other crimes.

“The COVID-19 pandemic brought attention to the low standards of accommodation for many migrant workers in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. While some improvements have taken place and must be recognised, there is still a long way to go to ensure that all migrant workers enjoy the decent and adequate accommodation they have the right to,” said Ms Chihoko Asada-Miyakawa, ILO Assistant Director-General and Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

Migrant worker housing in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand comprises a complex mosaic of accommodation types and also varies greatly by labour sector, urban/rural location, migration status and type of documentation. Other factors such as gender and accompanying family members are also affect housing options.

Inspections are a key means of enforcement of standards, but the report finds that they rarely extend to migrant housing. This changed for the better in Malaysia and Singapore during the pandemic, but consistent implementation remains a challenge. The report also highlights the need for housing inspections to be entirely separate from immigration enforcement.

Recommendations call for the implementation of clear and binding rights-based standards across all migrant worker accommodation in line with international human rights and labour standards as a minimum requirement for housing provided to all migrant workers, regardless of status. The report also calls for an end to the mandatory requirement in some countries for migrant domestic workers to live with their employers. In addition, it stresses the need for a low limit on the number of workers sharing a room, stopping the use of bunk beds as well as ending the practice of “hot bedding” where workers on different shifts share a bed.