Are Migrant Workers Entitled to National Social Protection?


Migrants, Expats — Are They The Same?

What makes one person an expat, and another a foreign worker or migrant?

Subconscious or not, Malaysians tend to separate the narrative between expat and migrants, but what exactly constitutes a migrant? Usually, expats are used to describing an upper class professional working abroad, while on the contrary, migrants and migrant workers are terms we use to describe those in less privileged conditions, such as a maid in households or construction workers. Semantics matter in this case as such language can be used as a tool to dehumanise, thus creating a clear divide of power struggle on the word “migrant”[1].
By right, the definition of migrant workers is essentially a collection of foreign people who have the legal right to work in a country in which they are officially recruited — as reflected in the Employment Act 1955 (Act 265) [4].

The COVID-19 pandemic has inherently exposed inherent gaps within Malaysia’s social protection system, with most assistance including cash transfers that are ultimately considered as a short-term buffer lacking sustainable financial guarantee. This snowball effect causes non-sustainable programmes that are underdeveloped, paired with unsatisfying benefits. While social insurance schemes give some form of protection for workers, it is, unfortunately, limited to ‘formal’ sector workers [3].

Domestic workers have consistently been excluded from most forms of labour protection — demonstrating the continuation of the longstanding ‘informal’ status accorded to domestic work: a situation that has existed since decades prior [2].

What Exactly is Social Protection?

Social protections build sound economies and healthy societies. They can be crucial, life-sustaining tools to enable access to health care and education, protect the right to housing and food, and shield people from extreme poverty. There is also increasing evidence that failure to uphold people’s economic, social and cultural rights can be a contributing factor in violence and conflict. By protecting those fundamental rights, social protections help to ensure public confidence in institutions, and social peace. — Michelle Bachelet (2020)

Social protection is played out as a set of policy measures with objectives in achieving basic income security for all, ensuring universal access to basic needs, and enhancing people’s capability to be productive and resilient to vulnerabilities. Overall, Malaysia’s social protection is heading in parallel with the country’s needs and objectives as a developing nation: notable mention include supporting poverty alleviation objectives.

However, improvements should have been made for coverage and adequacy of social protection, as it deems to remain a serious issue for a large population [3]. Malaysia has become one of the highest labour importers in Asia, with local Malaysian workers’ unwillingness to work at certain jobs that ultimately warrant for the trend of importing foreign workers over the past decades.

Though with normalisation of foreign migrants, the concerns of abuse and exploitation reign true as migrant workers reported to have a 7-day hectic schedule. Verbal abuse is also reported to have made it’s way as it’s more apparent for women domestic workers with records of sexual harrassment and assault in which includes rape [4].

Challenges for Migrant Workers in Retaining Social Protection

COVID-19 has indefinitely exacerbated the rate for challenges as a migrant worker and their families. A migrant workers can be denied or would have limited access to social protection, for example, and they may not be eligible for social security entitlements due to the fixed length of their employment or residency in the country, as well as the nature of their employment, i.e domestic work, self-employment, etc.

Access to healthcare is heavily centered as the main aspect of social protection, a particularly sensitive concern since the pandemic. As some migrant workers are exposed to harsh conditions, high health-related risks are more susceptible which makes them more vulnerable to respiratory diseases like COVID-19 (ILO 2020; WHO 2020).[5].

Migrant workers have the highest risk to be terminated since they are often over-represented in the agro-food industry, hospitality, and domestic work fields (ILO, 2015), which bears the heaviest weight during the pandemic. Though it depends on their respective contract, they may be the first to be laid off and face significant barriers in re-entering the workforce — if they choose to continue, some might experience wage cuts, non-payment of wages, and abhorrent working conditions [5].

Though the nation ultimately gained its upper hand in managing COVID-19, there are plenty of uncertainties coming from a large group of migrant workers, as echoed by Hassan (2020)’s sentiments that the possibility of a new wave of COVID-19 infection among migrant workers is a huge concern [6].

“We should not treat migrant workers any different from any other worker. They are as much entitled to have their livelihoods protected and they are entitled to have their health protected.” -Guy Ryder, ILO Director-General



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