Foreign workers at a rented home in Kuala Lumpur. Some foreign workers live in squalid condition. Pix by Asyraf Hamzah

THIS year, Malaysia remains on the United States government’s Tier 2 “Watch List” on human trafficking for the second consecutive year.

Malaysia was elevated from Tier 3 to Tier 2 in the Trafficking in Persons Report in 2015. Countries in the Tier 2 watch list are considered nations that “do not fully meet the minimum standard in eliminating human trafficking”.

Improving the ranking requires elevating the living conditions of foreign workers.

Towards that end, the government is amending a law to make it mandatory for employers to provide integrated and centralised labour quarters for foreign workers by next year.

Human Resources Minister Datuk Seri Richard Riot Jaem said his ministry would table the amended Standard Minimum Housing and Amenities Act 446 (1990) in Parliament on Jan 8 to provide better living conditions for foreign workers as well as address social ills.

“Hopefully, the legislators will pass this amendment to make it compulsory for employers to provide basic minimum standard housing for their foreign workers,” Richard said in Mantin, Negri Sembilan, recently.

He had earlier launched centralised labour quarters comprising 40 units, with three rooms each, that can accommodate 600 workers.

The law now stipulates that only plantation companies must provide living quarters for foreign workers.

Some foreign workers live in squalid conditions either in hostels provided by companies or in rented properties.

If the amended law is passed, employers from sectors such as manufacturing, security, food and beverage and others will have to provide living quarters for foreign workers.

Riot said the effort was needed as Malaysia did not have a minimum standard for foreign workers’ living quarters, which has caused social problems.

It is hoped that with this initiative, the welfare and safety of foreign workers can be ensured, social harmony can be preserved and Malaysia can adhere to international standards involving the management of foreign workers.

The Trafficking in Persons Report 2016 stated that Malaysia is a destination point for men, women and children from countries in South Asia and Southeast Asia, some of whom end up in forced or bonded labour toiling at oil palm plantations and construction sites or as domestic workers.

Among these trafficked foreigners, some women and children are trafficked into sex work.

The report said Malaysia’s population of trafficked people is estimated to be two million.

Riot said the centralised labour quarters for foreign workers, such as the one in Mantin, was part of the initiative to address the issue of trafficked people as well as improve Malaysia’s ranking on the watch list.

Having centralised labour quarters for foreign workers is timely as Malaysia does not have rules regarding minimum living standards for foreign workers, such as accommodation, the right to clean water and sanitation and even cooking space.

Without such standards, employers do not have guidelines to adhere to, which could lead to abuse and ill treatment of foreign workers and forced labour.

Although the issue may seem trivial, foreign workers in Malaysia have the same rights as Malaysian workers, as stipulated under the guidelines of the International Labour Organisation.

Under the organisation’s laws, foreign workers are accorded the same number of public holidays and sick leave as locals.

MYR Entry Sdn Bhd executive director Steve Prabagaran said it was time for Malaysia to provide centralised labour quarters for foreign workers as social problems involving them had plagued the country for more than two decades.

“Most companies in Malaysia do not even have a dedicated human resources department to handle foreign workers’ issues, let alone centralised foreign workers quarters, thus causing social problems,” said Prabagaran.

MYR Entry is one of the companies endorsed by the Home Ministry to carry out the centralised labour quarters initiative.

Such quarters are also provided by Yukim Sdn Bhd in Senai, Johor, as well as Integrity Management Network in Port Klang, Selangor.

During a working trip to the United Kingdom recently, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said Malaysia was giving itself four years to be placed on Tier 1 of the US Trafficking in Persons Watch List.

Zahid said to realise this ambition, Malaysia needed to do more to prove to the global community that it was doing all it could to tackle modern slavery.

It is hoped that centralised labour quarters will tell the world that Malaysia does not condone human trafficking and forced labour.

Zaidi Isham Ismail, is a former assistant news editor at ‘Business Times’, is NST’s Negri Sembilan bureau chief. He can be reached via xydee@mediaprima.com.my

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