Malaysia movement control

People rush to buy supplies in a Kuala Lumpur store ahead of the lockdown. All Photos: SANTOSH KARKI

Travel of migrant workers, tourists and businessmen between Malaysia and Nepal has ground to a halt after the Malaysian government announced a nationwide movement control order from 18 to 31 March.

This was in response to a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in Malaysia, of which two thirds were linked to a religious gathering of 16,000 individuals. The number of cases has now reached 673, but the nationalities of the infected have not been revealed.

“We used to handle up to 200 tour packages to Malaysia from India, Philippines and Nepal. Everyone has cancelled and there are no new bookings. How will I pay staff salary and rent?” asks Raju Sharma, a Malaysia-based Nepali tour operator.

The Kotaraya neighbourhood in Kuala Lumpur that used to be crammed with migrant workers has now become like a ghost town, Sharma said over the phone. There are at least 20 Nepali restaurants in Kotaraya, which have now switched to providing home delivery.

The Kotaraya neighbourhood in Kuala Lumpur has become like a ghost town

Despite disruptions, Malaysia is a popular destination for Nepali workers, with 380,000 documented Nepalis – the second highest migrant population there after Indonesians. Most have jobs in manufacturing, which has also been hit by disruptions in the global supply chain.

The Nepal-Malaysia migrant corridor was starting to recover from a ban as the Nepal government tried to reduce the fees workers had to pay. The ban was lifted after over a year in September 2019, and there was optimism about the future, which has been dashed by the pandemic.

A bilateral agreement stressed ‘equality of treatment’ so that Nepali workers enjoy the same benefits as locals in Malaysia do in their terms of employment. In a way, the COVID-19 outbreak levelled the playing field since the virus does not distinguish between locals and foreigners. Attempts to contain the virus have not distinguished between nationalities.

Migrant workers are, however, more vulnerable because of their cramped living quarters, the nature of their work and unequal access to health care. As a part of its COVID-19 rescue package, the Malaysian government has guaranteed RM600 ($135) for workers without pay for a maximum of six months, but it is not clear if this will apply to foreign workers impacted by COVID-19.

Nepalis are the second-highest migrant population in Malaysia

Nepali workers at the glove-manufacturing company WRP had been similarly out of work for a month after the US banned imports of its gloves for human rights violations last year, but had still received a basic salary. One Nepali worker at WRP told us by phone: “I am not certain about the future. For now, I will stay in my hostel for the next two weeks and have been told that I will get paid a basic salary."

But WRP is a big employer, and other migrant workers may not be as lucky. Workers at hotels and airlines have been forced to take unpaid leave. Not all Nepali workers will be staying home in isolation during the lockdown. As the only foreign workers allowed to work as security guards in Malaysia, thousands of them are expected to continue working long hours.

“We have made sure that guards have masks and hand sanitisers,” says Santosh Karki who works in the security business, “but uncertainty about how long we will be able to supply these necessities is worrisome.”

Nepali workers overseas have benefited from the health infrastructure of destination countries during this crisis, but as economies tumble, it is likely that many will experience mental stress, job losses and unpaid salaries when they return.

Nepali workers will also be returning to much more rudimentary health surveillance and medical care back home. The Foreign Employment Board is sitting on billions of rupees from the unused Foreign Employment Welfare Fund, which was designed for just such an emergency as the COVID-19 fallout.

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