Workers’ housing should be mandatory

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Contrast these homes to the expensive homes marketed abroad - Photograph: Choo Choy May/Malay Mail

The Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) is disappointed that Workers’ Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act 1990 Amendment Bill does not make it mandatory for employers to provide their workers with housing.

This is a major step backwards in terms of the government dealing with the plight of foreign workers and even local workers who work far from home. Employers should provide housing for these workers, especially those who are only paid the minimum wage.

When a local wants to employ a foreign worker, it is common practice that the contract signed between the two parties will include the employer’s provision of food and accommodation to the employee, the cost of which will be borne by the employer. While this ensures that the foreign worker is not stranded, often times the accommodation provided by the employer is unhealthy and dangerous.

Unlike foreign workers, local workers who have been employed by a company far from home are usually left to fend for themselves. This is also unjust as those moving to another state for work could be just as helpless as foreign workers who travel to a different country to work.

The new bill should have alleviated this problem completely by making workers’ housing mandatory but it did not.

Two things about the new bill should be highlighted.

The first is that is has made it optional for employers to provide their employees with housing (except estate workers) and employers may collect rent or any charges related to the accommodation.

The second is that workers’ housing must meet the minimum standards stated in the act, and housing must have a certificate of accommodation.

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Setting minimum standards and requiring certificates can be a good thing as workers will not be living in dangerous situations, such as construction workers living in containers on the worksite or having too many factory workers crammed into one low-cost flat.

However, not making it mandatory for employers to provide accommodation is not good as many employers may now choose not to provide accommodation for their workers, be they local or foreign.

Those desperate enough will still work far from home and if they cannot afford their own housing then the number of homeless could increase. Or they use most of their salary to pay rental and end up borrowing and subsequently falling into debt. Both scenarios are bad.

We iterate that the common practice of employers providing accommodation for their foreign workers should be made mandatory for all workers, foreign or local.

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