Thailand and Malaysia moved quickly to head off the coronavirus, sealing their borders, shutting down the movement of people and encouraging social distancing. They now face the delicate challenge of restarting their economies when the migrant workers they rely on pose one of the biggest risks of forcing another lockdown.
Temperature checks and mandatory virus tests are some of the measures becoming the new normal for the five million guest workers in the Southeast Asian nations. But the combination of cramped living conditions and language barriers make migrant labor vulnerable to a new round of infections.
Both Thailand and Malaysia are attempting to avoid a repeat of what happened in Singapore, which suffered a spike of infections from its 1 million strong low-wage foreign workforce, many of whom live in cramped dormitories. That would be a setback to the migrant labor market that has boosted incomes and economies across Southeast Asia.
"We could end up having a surge in cases similar to Singapore if we’re not careful,” said Adisorn Keadmongkol, manager at Migrant Working Group Thailand, which campaigns for labor rights. "What’s driving the businesses and workers to follow the rules is the fear of losing income when someone gets sick.”
Workers from Cambodia, Indonesia and Myanmar have been drawn to their neighbors for jobs, where they manufacture goods, build skyscrapers and tend farmland. In turn, richer countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore benefit from a flow of cheap labor.
Once travel bans are lifted, worker ties to home nations still experiencing outbreaks could see a new surge as they go to see family and laid off workers return.
As of Thursday, Malaysia had more than 6,700 cases of COVID-19, and Thailand reported just over 3,000, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University — small figures compared to the numbers seen in countries with much lower populations.
While Thailand remains on a state of emergency through May, it’s allowing some business to resume operations, with a ban on alcohol scrapped and permission given for restaurants to restart. Authorities are due to decide on May 15 whether to allow shopping malls, salons and beauty clinics to re-open. Malaysia has let nearly all economic activity resume, such as factories, with the government enforcing guidelines against large gatherings.
Both countries have indicated that the easing of lockdown measures depends on keeping the virus under control and any new flare up could jeopardize that.
Other countries are also grappling with how best to restart their economies. China lifted the lockdown in Wuhan last month although this week it announced plans to test every person in the city of 11 million. Hong Kong has doubled the limit on social gatherings to 8 people and plans to reopen schools and loosen border restrictions with mainland China as cases dwindle.
Thailand has already been caught out by some new infections among migrants in detention centers and authorities are stepping up efforts to reach the country’s three million foreign workers. That includes the Labor Ministry publishing information in Burmese, Lao and Cambodian as it asks migrants to practice good hygiene, such as regular hand washing, wearing a mask and forgoing local customs such as sharing food.
They are also urging employers to screen for symptoms although that isn’t a foolproof way to detect infections.
"They’re young and healthy and may be carrying the virus without showing symptoms and spreading it in the community,” said Theanrat Nawamawat, deputy permanent secretary of Thailand’s Labor Ministry. "A cluster outbreak would cut companies an essential workforce. Everyone is being vigilant.”
Some companies are going further. At Charoen Pokphand Foods PCL, where migrants make up about one-fifth of its workforce, employees are picked up by private car from a company apartment that sleeps two workers. They’re required to go through temperature checks twice before continuing their regular process of sanitation at processing plants for Thailand’s largest meat producer.
"The important thing is that we make it a clean and safe place to work,” said Chief Executive Officer Prasit Boondoungprasert. "Workers are worried about getting the infection as well as losing income.”
Fear of losing income is driving both workers and companies to follow rules and guidelines to avoid financial disruptions, said Adisorn, adding that those still employed probably don’t face as high a risk as those who lost their jobs.
Some 700,000 migrant workers — mostly in tourism, services and construction industries — have been let go since the lockdown started in late March, according to Adisorn’s estimates. Without income and adequate safety nets, about 200,000 migrants went back home, while those that stayed put cut expenses by sharing apartments with many others.
"The risks increase when they have no jobs. Less income means worse living conditions for many,” Adisorn said.
So far, about 20 migrant workers in Thailand have tested positive, he said, adding the reason cases remained low could be either because the virus is contained or there’s a lack of testing.
As of early May, about 257,000 tests were conducted in Malaysia, and 286,000 in Thailand. The Thai Health Ministry said it’s focusing on high-risk groups, including the services and retail sectors, although budget constraint won’t allow for mass testings.
Malaysia, where nearly 80 percent of migrant workers are from Indonesia, Bangladesh and Nepal, is taking a harder stance. The government ordered all migrant workers to undergo swabs, which can cost as much as 650 ringgit ($150) per kit.
The government said earlier that employers were required to cover the cost. But Malaysia’s real estate and builders associations issued a joint statement a few days after saying: "It is beyond the financial capacity of contractors to bear the cost, especially when contractors are already financially affected by the pandemic.”
It later clarified that the tests are free for all workers who are currently working and registered with the Social Security Organization. According to PwC, all employers in Malaysia have to contribute to social security for their foreign workers, excluding domestic servants.
This long-standing inter-dependence of the region through migrant worker flows is likely to be threatened by the pandemic. Countries where the virus is under control like Thailand and Malaysia fear migrant workers returning home for visits and then bringing infections back. But as businesses reopen, the demand for these workers is only expected to increase.
Thai Labor Ministry’s Theanrat said once the situation "returned to normal” and tourism and services sectors reopened, Thailand will relax its rules to allow migrants to return, with a mandatory 14-day quarantine to avoid a resurgence of cases.
Somprawin Manprasert, chief economist at Bank of Ayudhya PCL, said the likelihood of continued restrictions on people’s movements between countries in the region could create a tight labor market.
"The key question is whether there’d be enough workers when the economy reopens,” he said.