Just as Malaysia was contending with its second COVID-19 surge, an acute shortage of chips was setting off alarm bells around the industry. The wait times for chips reached a record 18 weeks. On June 30, Ford Motor Co. said it would halt production for two weeks at the Michigan factory that just began building its highly anticipated Bronco sport utility vehicle. President Joe Biden suggested the U.S. would spend $50 billion to expand domestic semiconductor capacity.
The Malaysia Semiconductor Industry Association argued it had to do its part to address the crunch.
“The supply chain of this industry is highly integrated, be it within its own industry or with other industries, locally and worldwide,” the association said on July 7. “The global semiconductor and electronics industry plays a critical role in the global economy.”
STMicro’s plant in Muar stayed open as Malaysia’s health ministry reported daily COVID-19 infections of more than 9,000 in early July.
Some STMicro employees were able to work from home. But workers on the production floor, like Hani Bin Sha’ari, had to go in. In fact, he worked overtime to help the company meet customer demand. He worked 12 hours a day for four straight days, then took two days off, and then worked four consecutive night shifts, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
STMicro had procedures in place for COVID-19, but they weren’t very rigorous early last year, according to another worker at the factory who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. The company took employees’ temperatures as they entered the workplace rather than testing them, and it didn’t have advanced tracking systems to determine which workers were in close contact with infected colleagues. Only when the company detected confirmed cases would it partially close an area for disinfection.
On July 9, Malaysia’s health ministry confirmed the existence of a cluster called “Persiaran Agas” — named after the address of STMicro’s Muar facility — with 18 positive cases during the first round of screening. By then, at least two STMicro workers had died from COVID-19. Three days later, Hani came home with a headache.
STMicro declined to discuss specific safety measures in use at that time. The company said that the configuration of the Muar site, with seven different buildings, enabled it to close certain buildings as required during the outbreak “under the guidance, approval and control of the Malaysian health authorities.”
But the death rate at the facility appears to be higher than at similar companies in Malaysia. At Unisem Bhd., a domestic semiconductor company, three of 3,500 employees died — roughly matching the national rate — according to Chairman John Chia.
When Hani came home with a headache on July 12, he figured it was probably because he got caught in the rain. He took some Panadol and went to bed early. By morning, the fever had started.
Meanwhile, a sense of crisis began to grip Malaysia. New COVID-19 infections passed 11,000 a day in mid-July. Struggling families hung white flags outside their homes in an appeal for help, and the hashtag #benderaputih — meaning white flag — gained traction online.
Nancy and the children also tested positive for COVID-19 and were quarantined in a different facility. They were planning to have a video call in the evening of July 26. But a doctor called her from the hospital and said Hani had to be intubated immediately. Three days later, the hospital arranged for Nancy to see her husband via a video call as he was unconscious and dying in the intensive care unit. He died July 29.
The day of his death, state politicians called for action to prevent further casualties at STMicro’s factory.
“We are not asking the factory to close for 14 years but only 14 days for the safety of the public,” the president of a nongovernmental organization said, according to local media.
In a letter to STMicro, Industriall Global Union, a global union federation, called on the company to put workers before company profits. “We urge STM to walk the talk on its sustainability strategy, which emphasizes putting people first and protecting everyone’s life,” Kan Matsuzaki, electronics director of Industriall, said in the letter.
That day, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry ordered a full shutdown of the plant until Aug. 4.
The nation of about 32 million people reached a record 21,000 daily cases that month, the highest per capita average in the region. The public grew furious. A new flag movement sprung up — #benderahitam, or black flag, this time — calling for the premier’s resignation. On Aug. 21, Ismail Sabri Yaakob was sworn in as Malaysia’s third prime minister in 18 months.