Malaysia's migrant workers

APRIL 16 — In every nation, there are groups which are excluded in order that social order can sustain itself.

There is a political price some segments of the country must pay so everyone else can go about their ordinary lives.

In Malaysia, as in many other developing countries, these would include the poor, the indigenous peoples (or orang asli) and, alas, the foreign nationals.

The “Bangla” man who vacuums our cars, the South Indian who sweeps the cinema floors, the Nepalese who guards our condominiums and the “Indons” who lay the bricks which add up to our cloud-scraper ─ all these people aren’t exactly, shall we say, first-class citizens.

In 2013, people began calling them “phantom voters” or “haunt”, but it’s tragic that even before any of the alleged election controversies, our migrant workers were already invisible.

Even today we see them but choose not to. We walk past them but might as well be walking “through” them. We need them to do those tasks we’d rather not, but beyond that their existence means less to us than what’s for lunch.

I recall speaking to a man cleaning the cinema floor one evening. He told me in tears that he had been working in the country for almost two years and hadn’t had a chance to return to Bangladesh to see his daughter. As my daughter was barely a year old at the time, I truly felt for him.

The typical Malaysian within his first two years of work will immediately make three to four times what this guy gets, hardly worries about seeing his family (in fact, often chooses office time over home time) and never hears the stories of these people (see note 1). We know little — and care less — about their families, their cultures, their struggles, their pain.

By pain I refer to their exploitation at the hands of middle-men who pocket a huge chunk of their visa fees, factory bosses who force them to work under terms and conditions not many Malaysians would accept, and abusive employers who treat them as stand-in punching bags.

Most heart-breaking, many of them suffer while longing for a home they only get to see once in a long while.

And yet by their stripes, we are kept healthy. Our cars are washed, floors kept clean, children kept safe, our food cooked, buildings built, etc.

Our migrant workers are largely invisible, kept out of sight, refused a social presence yet critical for the running of our nation. Malaysia needs them but excludes them. The excrement that we dispose of quietly and in private is the very same substance that nurtures our national body.

Anyway, either my Googling skills are terrible or these workers aren’t given much of a priority in the political parties’ manifestos cum charters.

Of course these workers don’t get to cast a vote, but that’s also true of God and the trees but you can bet voters aren’t ignoring the spiritual realms and the environment. The bottom line, of course, is that I think our migrant workers deserve better welfare while they contribute to the development of the country.

Can the Opposition offer these people more this year?

We must, as a nation, stop treating them like something we can’t wait to flush away. Nobody should be a “part of no part.”

Because justice-loving Malaysians and migrant workers in Malaysia have a common bond, a “one language”: We all share in the universality of struggle, of personal/national trauma.

Hopefully this transnational vulnerability can also affirm our neighbourliness, the willingness to help another nation-in-migration “fit in” better to ours. Both before and after May 9 this year.

Note 1: A great place to start if we’re keen on learning more about these workers’ narratives is Parthian Muniandy’s Politics of the Temporary: An Ethnography of Migrant Life in Urban Malaysia (Petaling Jaya: SIRD, 2014).

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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