Recent Teratai Covid-19 Outbreak is a Reminder to Revamp Manufacturing Sector

The Teratai cluster, which is linked to the world’s largest glove manufacturer Top Glove Corp Bhd, is now the biggest active workplace Covid-19 cluster in Malaysia. Since 7 November, the cluster has recorded a total of 4,036 positive cases including the 1,511 out of the 1,623 new cases recorded in Selangor on Tuesday, 24 November, making it the main contributor for the spike of cases in the state.

This should serve as a cautionary tale for industry players and Malaysians in general. We are only as strong as our weakest link. We must do more to protect the most vulnerable in our society, which includes migrant workers. We need to seriously relook at how we are treating them and rethink their current working and living arrangements.

Given that worker’s dormitories have been identified as one of the sources of outbreak and infection, this is one of the priority areas that the government must look into. In the medium and short term, organisations employing migrant workers must be required to ensure that the housing provided for their employees meets set health standards and specifications. Rooms and lodgings provided must factor in the space, design, facilities, and disease response considerations, moving away from the cramped dismal living areas that are mostly associated with the current conditions of foreign workers’ living quarters.

Without these improvements, these vulnerable community living areas will continue to be recurring hotspots for virus infection and lead to further massive Covid-19 outbreaks in the future.

For the longer term, there is a need for the manufacturing sector to move towards less reliance on foreign labour. Here’s an example of how we can start the ball rolling. To set the context, recently there have been calls for the imposing of a windfall tax on glove makers following their record profits garnered from the huge demand for its products and protective gear due to the pandemic.

Instead, I would recommend to use all existing and, if needed, new policy tools to guide the glove industry to automate and to hire Malaysians, at a wage of at least RM2,500 per month. It is preferable for them to create jobs for Malaysians as this will lead to healthier economic growth  in the long run, and also helps the nation now.

With a carrot to incentivise the glove sector to automate, and with a stick to make the hiring of cheap foreign labour more expensive, the Government can guide the glove industry to create tens of thousands of jobs for Malaysians at RM2500 – RM4000 over the next few years through an “automation+Malaysianisation” programme. Ultimately, this will lead to a virtuous cycle for all sides.

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