The invisible ‘frontliners’

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The Penang division of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress, at the onset, records its salutations, gratitude and admiration to all medical personnel in their unwavering commitment in their quest to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Their sacrifices are worth their weight in gold.

While the nation is eternally indebted to our frontline personnel, what has escaped the radar is the contribution and sacrifices of the “invisible frontliners” – those who are toiling to produce personal protective equipment such as rubber gloves and face masks.

An industry that ought to be a point of reference is the rubber glove manufacturing sector. Since the announcement of the movement control order, rubber glove manufacturers were allowed, initially, to operate at 50%.

The Malaysian Rubber Gloves Manufacturers Association (Margma) then pleaded with and begged the prime minister and the government to allow the industry to operate at 100% capacity.

To justify that plea, the Margma president Denis Low was quoted as saying that many governments were “literally begging” the association “to run our factories at full capacity” (Star BizWeek, 21 March 2020). Not surprisingly, the association got what it begged for.

But what was shocking was the government’s utter disregard for the safety and welfare of thousands of workers, including a substantial number of migrant workers, who are involved in the manufacturing of rubber gloves.

Without so much as Covid-19 screening, rubber glove manufacturers were permitted to operate full scale.

As of 23 April, we have received complaints of alleged disregard of basic requirements such as social distancing, sanitisation of the work premises and of buses or other mode of transport provided by employers.

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Concerns have also been voiced about the often cramped accommodation provided to migrant workers.

Given these areas of concern, the issue that needs the attention of the government is the risk the workers face while fulfilling the glove manufacturers pursuit of maximum output and profits.

There can be no doubt that the workers are placing their health at risk by being forced to continue working during the movement control order.

And, as we understand, these “invisible frontliners” are not adequately compensated for their sacrifices – and that too at the peril of infection of Covid-19!

We do recognise that the Malaysian government and producers are under immense pressure to meet the demand for rubber gloves but what needs utmost consideration is the safety and wellbeing of workers involved in the production of medical products as a whole.

We understand that the National Union Of Employees In Companies Manufacturing Rubber Products, the union that represents workers in the rubber glove manufacturing sector, has lodged complaints with the Ministry Of International Trade And Industry (Miti) on the failure of employers to conform to essential conditions such as social distancing – and that no effective action was forthcoming.

The rubber glove manufacturing sector aside, the situation may well prevail in sectors so permitted to continue operation during the movement control order.

Under the circumstances, we urge Miti, the Ministry Of Health and the Ministry Of Human Resources to ensure that employers conform to stringent precautionary measures – social distancing, personal protective equipments, sanitisation, Covid-19 screening, disinfection of the workplace and proper housing for migrant workers.

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Until and unless strict enforcement is carried out, employers would continue to “make hay while the sun shines” in meeting market demand and, in that blinkered pursuit, compromise on the safety and wellbeing of the workers.

23 April 2020

K Veeriah is secretary of the Penang division of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress

Excerpt from theSun:

In an immediate response, the Penang chapter of the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers insisted that social distancing recommendations have been adopted by all factories in line with requirements of the movement control order.

However, its chairman Datuk Dr Ooi Eng Hock conceded that some factories might have “overlooked” it.

“It is probably a work-in-progress and they should be adopting all safety and security measures soonest possible,” he said.

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