THE 200-ODD The Bangladeshi and Indian men hired to build a new resort on Baa Atoll in the Maldives were increasingly desperate. Since covid-19 closed the island nation to tourists in March, migrant workers have been forced to work without pay. They lived in cramped and squalid conditions and lacked food, clean water, medical care and even soap. In May, they expressed their grievances in a silent protest. In a confused event a little later, they briefly took a few locals hostage – apparently believing they were mobsters sent to threaten them. In July, they brought their protests to the capital, Malé. The authorities’ response? Label the workers a threat to national security and expel dozens of them. They were at least able to return home.
The Maldives may have 230,000 legal and illegal foreign workers, or nearly one in every two Maldivians. Many have their passports confiscated by employers, have to pay exorbitant fees to employment agencies or are, in fact, trafficked, without knowing clearly for whom they work. Now, thanks to the pandemic, they have lost their jobs or are being denied a salary.
In the Asia-Pacific region, which is the world’s largest supplier and user of foreign labor, details vary, but the overall picture is sadly familiar. Asia’s more than 33 million migrants – the ones who build the sparkling cities and resorts, clean and cook for the growing middle classes, and keep a billion toilets clean – lead difficult lives before the pandemic. (A Filipino domestic helper in Hong Kong whom Banyan knows was banned from taking a day off for a month because she shrunk her boss’s creator. T-shirt in the dryer.) They have become even more precarious.
Most Asian states like their foreign workers to be out of sight when they’re not doing something useful. In Singapore, 323,000 workers, mostly from South Asia, are housed in dormitories on the outskirts of the city. At the start of the pandemic, the government praised its skillful handling of covid-19. But there was a blind spot: crowded dorms. Soon, the virus spreads rapidly among foreign workers, who now account for 94% of the nearly 58,000 cases in the city-state.
At least the authorities were quick to test the foreign workers and improve their conditions. Workers received Wi-Fi, additional food and medical attention. In neighboring Malaysia, the situation is darker. The country has 4-6 million regular and irregular migrant workers, including from Indonesia, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Large numbers of people have lost their jobs following the closure of shopping centers, factories and construction sites. Under Malaysia’s “movement control order”, the military barricaded a large area around the Selayang wholesale market on the outskirts of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, locking up thousands of migrant workers, refugees and refugees. and potential asylum seekers who had found work there. Conditions in Malaysia remain appalling, with many migrants taking turns sleeping in plywood barracks. The government has given little aid to migrants, the foundation of the economy. Cash-strapped embassies haven’t been of much help either. “In Singapore,” says Alex Ong of Migrant Care, a NGO, “At least they have beds.”
As economies open up, conditions improve. At its peak, Migrant Care was distributing food to 2,300 migrants. Today, he feeds less than 100, mostly mothers and young children. Work is coming back: for example, the global demand for rubber gloves made in Malaysia is booming. But the return is also an abuse of work. Factory bosses force foreigners to work excessive hours without a break. Meanwhile, millions of migrant workers remain in Kafkaesque limbo. Many of those who still cannot find work are also struggling to return home, due to closed borders, lack of transport routes or lack of money. This puts them, unintentionally, on the wrong side of the law as residency permits expire.
Back in the Maldives, there may be a bright spot. Police accused the company that recruited the protesting workers, which is owned by a local MP, trafficking and other work abuses. In Malaysia, Mr. Ong says that the recovery offers a “golden opportunity” to overhaul the system of recruiting migrant workers, and especially to remove politically connected operators. These get bigger by guaranteeing government quotas for workers which they actually sell to employers who need them. One of the worst abuses of colonial times in Asia was the coolie work system. But contemporary Asian governments preside over something strangely similar.
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This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “No Pay, No Rights, No Recourse”