The KTM Series #5: Cheap Labor and Hope

This is The KTM Series, where people write about what they see on while travelling using the Malaysian Railway. This issue was written by Jian Li Chew, a friend I had met in one of the student conferences/forums we attended. Props to him for writing this piece!

On Wednesday afternoon I had taken the KTM Komuter to collect my Green Card (Authorisation to go on a construction site) at Titiwangsa.

Having gotten permission to leave the office, I decided to take public transport instead of the car to avoid the hassle of traffic jams and parking. On the way back, I was on the platform of the KL Sentral station. A woman who I assumed was Malay with two kids in tow asked me how to get to Port Klang. I simply told her to wait for the train to arrive, and that alternate trains stop at Port Klang and Klang. She didn’t understand what I said. I had forgotten that most people aren’t familiar with train schedules. When the train arrived, it was for Klang station. I simply told her to board the train, and when she reached Klang station, to disembark and seek help from station staff. I then gave it little thought.

Later, I realised that she was likely not Malay, but Indonesian, off to the port to catch the ferry back home for Lebaran (or as we call it, Hari Raya Aidilfitri). That made me think of another story about two or three years ago.

My mum and I had gone to the LCCT to catch a flight. A Filipino woman with her toddler asked us which gate she should go to to catch the flight to Manila. In her hand were pink and red documents with the headline “Program Pendatang Asing Tanpa Izin” (Illegal Immigrants Program). We found an elderly Malaysian couple also going to Manila and asked them to guide the two of them to the relevant gate.

That also linked to the Bangladeshi man I sat next to while undergoing Green Card training. I’m an intern at a construction company and to go on site in Malaysia, you need to undergo a one-day training course on safety. The speaker kept picking on the Bangladeshi man, asking him if losing a limb, falling of a tall building or getting seriously injured was worth the meagre pay and squalid mattress in a “rumah kongsi” was worth it. Whether dying abroad and not being able to see his wife and son was worth it. To which, the bemused man said no to each question.

That got me thinking of these foreign workers. Sure, we often complain about how many of them there are in this country. On one hand people complain that they take away jobs from locals and commit crimes. Economists say that they help suppress wages in Malaysia and that we are too addicted to the cheap, easy labour they provide. We too easily overlook them as they work the Dirty, Dangerous and Demeaning (3D) jobs we refuse to take, and don’t see their innate humanity.

I realise now that the look of apprehension and fear in the eyes of the Indonesian woman at Sentral and the Filipino woman at LCCT was a window into their souls. The Indonesian woman likely spent most of her time in her rented room and at work, and was a fish out of water in a train station she likely had never been to, spurred only by the hope of seeing her relatives during the holiday. The Filipino woman, whom I assume was from Mindanao as she had a Muslim name, likely entered Malaysia by boat and may have never seen an airplane before. She had been caught and faced deportation. What went through her mind? I can only guess. The desolation of losing her job, the prospect of never being able to command the high salary she enjoyed, and the worry of how to raise her small child, maybe. The Bangladeshi construction worker was lucky as he had seen his wife and child a mere 18 months back, just before leaving for Malaysia.

For all the debate about the merits and demerits of an economy addicted to cheap foreign labour, it made me look at the other side of the coin. What made them come here in the first place?

Hope.

The hope that if they sacrifice the time spent with their children, or if they transplant themselves to a foreign and unfamiliar place, they would be able to give their children the life that they never had. To feed them properly and to save up for a house with concrete floors to sleep on and thick walls and a tin roof that didn’t leak. Why else would they pay huge sums to unscrupulous dealers or break the law to illegally enter this country?

And for all our complaints regarding the jobs they apparently steal from us locals, would you be willing to work long hours in backbreaking, six, maybe seven days a week, for less than RM1,500 a month and to stay in a squalid kongsi shared with many other men? To times where the employer is annoyed by their constant requests for overtime? To live without protection of the law, under unscrupulous dealers and corrupt policemen who harass these essentially defenceless people?

These fleeting meetings with them gave me a glimpse to who these people are. I can only wish that the Indonesian woman found her way to Port Klang and is on a ferry on her way home for Lebaran. That the Filipino woman has found a way to care for herself and her child, and that the Bangladeshi worker, having gotten his Green Card, can start work on site.

I remember seeing a print-out on the table at a warehouse office. It was an Air Asia ticket for Mr Krisno Krisno. Mr Krisno, who worked at the warehouse, didn’t know how to book his ticket, so one of the office staff did it for him. I never did know which of these men was named Krisno, but to me, I see the hope and joy of seeing relatives and of a warm family reunion, of smiles and laughter, of a short span of bliss, before returning to the humdrum of everyday life. And I see that these men and women are not so different from me after all.

Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri, and Salam Lebaran.

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