Thursday, April 23, 2020

A call for policy change and relief measures for undocumented foreign workers in our fight against COVID-19

First and foremost, I would like to thank our unsung heroes – our tireless health professionals around the nation for their hard work and excellent job under the leadership of the Malaysian Director-General of Health Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah as evident in the recovery rate of Malaysians from Covid-19. 

As of April 22nd, there are 1,987 actives cases which make up a total of 5,532 cases and a total recovery of 3, 452 cases – an amazing recovery of 62.4%. While Malaysia has been making progress with recovery, I deeply empathise with our neighbour Singapore, where the tally there rose to 9,000 Covid-19 cases. 

It was reported that the recent spike in their cases also included 1,369 foreign workers living in dormitories. I fear that Malaysia may face the same fate if matters are taken lightly. In spite of our relative progress there is a concern that we have overlooked the precarious situation of our health care policies in relation to foreign workers that would make it difficult for undocumented workers to be tested for the virus. 

Thus, this leaves us little room for reassurance of real improvement since we have foreign workers – both legal and illegal who are living in our midst that are not eligible for Covid-19 testing. In a crisis of this scale, I believe that it is vital for us to look at the common good and means to contain the virus rather than just holding on to rigid rules that would prove to jeopardize our quality of life more than protecting us. 

It has been previously reported that there are a few million illegal workers in the country which means that there is a large pool of undocumented persons in Malaysia that could potential be at risk or potentially risk the spread of Covid-19. It has to be noted the Home Ministry would be in the best position to know the exact numbers (if any) of undocumented foreign workers.

 This also correlates to the reality of healthcare services in Malaysia which is often inaccessible to migrant workers. At the same time, I understand that there are complex access barriers, many beyond the control of the health sector such as affordability and financial constraints; the need for legal documents like valid passports and work permits; language barriers; discrimination and xenophobia; and physical inaccessibility and employer-related barriers.

 In addition, Government mandated insurance for migrant workers is insufficient in view of the recent increase in medical fees. It is important to note too that language barriers may affect the quality of care received by migrant workers, by inadvertently resulting in medical errors, while preventing them from giving truly informed consent.

 The perceived close working relationship between the Ministry of Health and Immigration effectively excludes undocumented migrants from access to public healthcare facilities. While legal workers would be easier to test since they are registered under the Social Security Organization (SOCSO), the estimated millions of undocumented workers could be hiding with the force of law looming over their heads and fear of losing their freedom once they are tested.

 We must not rest on our laurels and find a way to mitigate the spread. There’s so much we can learn from other countries on their compassionate approach in dealing with the pandemic when push comes to shove. In countries like America there are special relief funds for undocumented workers. For example, in California there is a $125 million Disaster Relief Fund will include $75 million in taxpayer funds and $50 million in philanthropic contributions to help undocumented workers affected by coronavirus secure a one-time payment of up to $500 per person or $1,000 per household.

 In this crucial time, we need to take a different approach by adhering to principles of common good at the policy level to ensure that undocumented workers are tested for Covid-19 without policy limitations and bureaucratic constrains. 

Drastic steps have to be taken to test for Covid -19 all undocumented illegal workers. Unless this is done urgently and immediately a time bomb is waiting to happen! Health is a fundamental human right and there should be a special relief fund to protect these workers from the pandemic. It is the fundamental right of every human being to enjoy the highest achievable standard of health as enshrined in the Constitution of the World Health Organization and principles of equality as stipulated in Article 8 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia.

 To encapsulate, Malaysia have a rights-based approach to healthcare in order to contain a pandemic such as Covid-19. This is line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which emphasises on universal health coverage and health equity, and stresses on the importance of “leave no one behind” concept.

 The pandemic has been an eye opener and it calls for us to adapt to universal principles of a healthcare system – one that is inclusive for all human beings.

 M. Kula Segaran
 Member of Parliament for Ipoh Barat, 
 Perak National Vice-Chairman of the Democratic Action Party 
 Former Human Resources Minister, Malaysia 
 23 April 2020

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Parliamentary sitting is urgent; cannot be delayed and must be done beyond just a day

We are at war with the inevitable and I know I don’t speak for myself when I say that it’s time for the Government to reconvene Parliament sitting in Malaysia with immediate urgency.

In the past few weeks, we’ve witnessed overbearing stress on public hospitals and its personnel; an increase in job losses of Malaysian workers and migrant workers; increase of complaints on the spike in prices of goods and services; and increase of concerns on whether there is an effective system in place in regards to food aid distribution. We’ve also heard of a number of struggling business establishments that have found difficulty in getting approval from the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) to open shop due to the flood of traffic on its online portal.

In the context of these emergencies, it is highly regrettable that the Perikatan Nasional government has only allocated a day for Parliamentary sitting and that too, scheduled only on May 18. It is pivotal to keep in mind that Parliament- as a pillar of a democratic system to balance power, pass laws and act and represent the will of the Rakyat – is especially critical now to assuage public fears and ensure swift delivery of resources to communities in need especially those who are undeserved or marginalized.

More importantly, legislatures are an essential line of defence against executive branch power abuse which includes potential abuse of state resources. Above all, there must also be an effective check and balance on the RM250 billion Prihatin Rakyat Economic Stimulus Package (PRIHATIN); ensuring its effectiveness and delivery. In the face of this unprecedented pandemic, Parliament sittings cannot be construed as a normal proceeding. On the contrary, it should be viewed as a place of solidarity for us to make and take the right measures as a collective; and to mobilise join efforts towards proper and rational mechanisms of aid delivery.

 There is much we can learn from other countries: - Legislatures in Albania, Colombia, Brazil, and the Maldives have adjusted their parliamentary rules of procedure to work remotely and convene virtually. - Members of Parliament in France, Germany, Norway, and Croatia are holding parliamentary sessions, but requiring limited numbers of MPs in the room – all of them abide by social distancing recommendations. - Additionally, legislators in Armenia, Guatemala, Indonesia, and Kosovo are connecting with constituents and sharing updates on Covid-19 through social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. How are we – the MPs in Malaysia, empowered to update our constituencies if Parliament does not sit and deliberate on critical issues impacting the Rakyat during this crucial period?

I urge the Pakatan Nasional government to call for an emergency Parliamentary sitting as soon as possible and before May 18 through a virtual sitting that will enable all MPs to air the concerns of their constituencies and convey decisive messages to the people they represent. We are living in extraordinary times that will require us to think out of the box and implement innovative solutions. I – for one, will work with the Pakatan Nasional government to be part of the solution in overcoming the challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic to the Rakyat.

 M. Kula Segaran
 Member of Parliament for Ipoh Barat, Perak
 National Vice-Chairman of the Democratic Action Party
 Former Human Resources Minister, Malaysia
AA 19 April 2020