Expatriate workers, including Bangladeshis, in Malaysia are facing concerns over their jobs and income after the country declared a nationwide state of emergency until August 1 to combat the rising Covid-19 cases with the daily case number recently crossing the 3,000-mark.
Migrants and rights activists said many foreign workers either lost their jobs or had their wages slashed amid the pandemic since February last year when a lot of businesses faced closure or downsizing.
With some businesses reopening in June, the economy began recovering. But the country saw another wave of Covid-19 late last year, prompting Malaysian King Al-Sultan Abdullah to declare a state of emergency on Wednesday.
The state of emergency allows the state to take over private hospitals and deploy additional military and police forces. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin warned that the health system was at "breaking point".
According to Malaysian media reports, much of the businesses face closure because of the state of emergency.
The state of emergency gives the incumbent cabinet extraordinary powers to suspend parliament and introduce laws without approval of the House. Opposition parties say the PM was using the declaration to cling to power as he faces calls to step down and hold a general election.
Muhyiddin took office in March last year with a thin majority, but he was facing threats from coalition allies that they would withdraw support for his government, which would trigger a snap election.
Analysts say pandemic-related slowdown of the economy and signs of political instability are frustrating all.
"This is a worrying situation for the migrant workers. The schools and universities are closed and the restaurant I work for draws very few customers," said Ismail Sagor, a Bangladeshi migrant working in Cyberjaya area of Selangor state.
He said the daily sales of the restaurant used to be 1500 Malaysian Ringgit (Tk 31,500) during normal time, but the figure has now come down to less than RM 300.
"I am now just trying to survive," Ismail said.
He said undocumented workers are hit the hardest as employers are reluctant to hire them. Also, the Malaysian government is strict in enforcing the law under which employers face penalties for hiring undocumented workers.
Due to the pandemic, many undocumented workers also could not have their status regularised, but they fear arrest if they go out of their home.
Malaysia hosts about 800,000 Bangladeshi workers, including an estimated two lakh undocumented ones.
There is an ongoing regularisation programme called "recalibration" for the undocumented workers. They can get jobs and regularised only if the immigration department is satisfied that their employer really has jobs. Therefore, the rate of regularisation is low now, said Ahmadul Kabir, a Bangladeshi journalist based in Kuala Lumpur.
Traditionally, he said, many employers hire undocumented workers and pay them less than regular salaries. But this practice is shrinking now as the government has tightened rules against such recruitments.
Kabir said even if one has a work permit, he has to work for the particular company that originally hired him. Otherwise, the employer is fined.
"Closure of many businesses and tightening of laws have made the situation worse for foreign workers," he added.
With the state of emergency in force, there is a real uncertainty over the situation in the coming months, the journalist said.
Sumitha Shaanthinni Kishna, director of migrant rights charity Our Journey, said the situation is not as bad as it was during the first lockdown in Malaysia.
The manufacturing, construction, service, plantation and commodities sectors are open now, but their businesses are yet to be fully operational. The government has banned foreign workers from working in the wet markets for fear of spread of the virus -- a decision which resulted in joblessness of many Bangladeshis, she said.
Abu Hayat, an independent Bangladeshi researcher based in Kuala Lumpur, said economic slowdown has left several lakh Malaysians jobless. They, however, have been brought under various public social safety schemes, but not the foreign workers.
"This is the area where we need to work because migrants are the group of people most badly affected by the pandemic," he said.
Jahirul Islam, labour counsellor at Bangladesh High Commission in Malaysia, however, said he didn't see Bangladeshis being affected by the state of emergency.
"We don't have reports that the state of emergency has created problems for the migrants. This is just for controlling the spread of novel coronavirus," he told this correspondent over the phone.