Covid Meets Slavery in Southeast Asia

The less-rich exploit the even less-rich

Slavery, debt slavery, and bonded labor have long been a curse of much of Southeast Asia, in the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-independence eras. And so it is today as the richest countries make themselves ever richer by treating persons from less fortunate neighbors as cheap, disposable, rights-less labor, often additionally constrained by debt, seizure of passports, and fear of arrest.

The chief culprits are Singapore and Malaysia. For years Singapore managed to hide the reality of the meager wages and miserable living conditions of the nearly 30 percent of the labor force with few rights, no families and who were subject to losing their jobs at short notice sometimes even before they had paid off the debt incurred in getting to a Singapore job.

Singaporeans mostly turned a blind eye to what they must have seen, while foreigners continued to suck up government propaganda about Singapore’s public housing and health achievements. Foreign workers’ barracks were not on the tour agenda, the legions of domestic helpers never interviewed about their living conditions and abuses suffered.

Then came Covid-19 and the fact that the vast majority of Singapore cases occurred among those in these awful, cramped high-rise barracks hidden away from view. The island republic’s foreign workforce, when the coronavirus hit, numbered 1.3 million in a total population of 5.07 million, with 200,000 of them from China, the original source of the coronavirus infestation.

Now we are starting to see similar issues in Malaysia where, for a long time, undocumented Bangladeshi and Indonesian labor has been particularly exploited as fear of arrest and deportation act as tools of modern slavery. Even legal foreign labor is often not much better off, facing low wages and often having incurred debts to get a job through an agency or employing company recruiter.

As Asia Sentinel reported on June 16, unofficial estimates are that up to 6 million foreign workers are in the country, amounting to 18.6 percent of the country’s 32.6 million population. This expatriate labor force is made up of 2.27 million legally working and another 2.5 to 3.37 million illegal foreign ones.

Foreign workers represent somewhere between 31-40 percent of the Malaysian workforce of 15.3 million, employed primarily in what is called “3D” (dirty, dangerous, and difficult) jobs in the plantation, agriculture, construction, manufacturing, and service sectors.  Other Covid clusters in Malaysia have been associated with construction sites where large numbers of foreign workers live in primitive conditions

Foreign maids are sexually abused and raped, workers lose limbs through unsafe equipment, workers are overworked and underpaid, refused rest days, their passports confiscated upon arrival, shunned as second-class citizens, and thought of as being subhuman.

So after the Singapore barracks Covid-19, surge it was only a matter of time before Malaysia saw the same. Thus in just a few days, a cluster of 2,524 cases sprang up in the vicinity of Top Glove factories near Klang. Of the victims, 2,360 were “foreigners” and a mere 164 Malaysian citizens. As the maker of latex gloves used in the health industry,  Top Glove, headed by founder Lim Wee-chai, is one of the world’s major beneficiaries of the Covid pandemic. Its share price has risen by 500 percent over the past year as prices and production have boomed.

Even before this, Top Glove was widely accused of abuse of migrant labor. A report in 2019 in The Guardian newspaper accused it of forced labor, recruitment fee which created debt bondage, seizure of passports to prevent escape, and appalling living conditions. Similar reports in 2020 led to the US Customs imposing a ban on imports from Top Glove factories. But such exposes do little to curb the greed of some capitalists and the complicity of some Malay officials.

In Singapore, the mass Covid outbreaks earlier this year drew attention to the living conditions in barracks and how the disease largely affected these workers, not the citizen population. This scandal may result in some improvements in the conditions in the barracks – most of which are run as private enterprises – but it is doubtful that the general attitude of the citizens and more fortunate foreign residents will change. The attitude there and in Malaysia is simply one of regarding the rights-less, ill-paid workers as lucky to have jobs.

Yet it is a corrosive attitude for a state to rely so heavily for the comfort of its citizens to do so on the backs of non-citizens. Behind the attitude is another dark reality that reflects the attitudes of many pale-skinned Asians to their darker Asian brothers. It is time indeed for a BLM – Brown Lives Matter – movement to shake up Southeast Asia (and China and Hong Kong, which has nearly 400,000 domestic workers, nearly 70 percent of them from brown-skinned Philippines).


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