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Bukit Kukus landslide: Migrant workers’ lives matter

Vigil for Bukit Kukus landslide victims

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While the technical and environmental aspects of the landslide are being analysed, Tenaganita draws attention to the human tragedy that often tends to be neglected.

The Bukit Kukus landslide tragedy in Penang has as usual generated a slew of accusations and counter-accusations about how the disaster was allowed to happen. It is important to remember that accidents don’t just happen, they are caused.

Almost overnight a whole posse of experts – ranging from politicians, soil specialists, building experts and the like – have emerged out of the woodwork to make wise pronouncements on what went wrong, on how procedures were not followed, speaking glibly about matters such as mulching, geotextile materials, silt fences, sedimentation ponds, and erosion and sediment control plans.

None of these concerns seem to have been part of the public discourse while the tragedy was quietly in the making – except by a few civil society organisations and the odd politician with principles and the courage of his convictions to speak contrarily against mainstream political correctness.

While the technical and environmental aspects of the landslide are being analysed, Tenaganita would like to draw attention to the human tragedy that often tends to be neglected.

Nine persons have lost their lives and many more have been injured. They should not be reduced to statistics; they are human persons with spouses, parents, children and other loved ones who depend on them. They are breadwinners of their families. They are migrant workers who left their homes to come to work in Malaysia with dreams of building a better life for themselves and their families while building our country.

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Let us not forget that the real value of their labour contribution to our economy far exceeds the wages paid to them. Their deaths cannot be undone, but have we learned anything from this tragedy so that their deaths are not in vain? Judging from experience this does not seem to be likely.

Lai Sin Kian, the technical director of Yuta Maju Sdn Bhd, the main contractor for the paired road under construction, has disclaimed responsibility for those who perished in the landslide, and let the bodies lie unclaimed in the mortuary stating that they were not hired by the company or its subcontractors. This is completely irresponsible in addition to being callous and cruel.

Yuta Maju Sdn Bhd should be held responsible for people who die on their work site. It is common knowledge that main contractors employ sub-contractors, who in turn engage the services of sub-sub contractors. Quite often, subcontractors employ migrant workers who are subjected to various forms of violations – unsafe work practices, non-payment of wages, injuries, deaths etc.

Tenaganita notes with concern that there is an increasing trend by main contractors to shrug off responsibility for these violations by claiming that the victims are not their employees. That is not acceptable.

The main contractors cannot disclaim responsibility for any violation that takes place on the work site. They have the responsibility to ensure that the work site is safe and secure for all workers, and “outsiders” who may be visiting the workers.

Does Yuta Maju Sdn Bhd not know who these “outsiders” are and what they were doing at their work site? If indeed that is the case, could it perhaps be an indication of a general lackadaisical attitude of the company, especially with regard to workers.?

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Another matter of grave concern is the lack of adequate and equitable compensation for the workers who have been injured or have died. Families and the next of kin of many of the migrant workers who died a year ago in the Tanjung Bungah landslide have still not received the paltry compensation due to them. This could be partly due to bureaucratic inefficiency, but the fact remains that they have still not received the money. As beneficiaries of their labour, sweat, blood and lives, we have the responsibility to do everything possible so that their dependents and loved ones are not left helpless and impoverished.

Furthermore, if the workers who have been injured or have died are undocumented (not illegal), they would not have been covered by insurance. But that does not mean that they are not human persons with families who depend on them. If we are prepared to benefit from their labour – and even their very lives – we should have the decency to compensate them equitably when accidents happen.

Tenaganita also notes that Malaysia does not accord equal treatment with regard to social security for migrant workers and national workers.

National workers are covered by Sosco, which entitles them or their dependents to pensions in case of permanent disability or death.

In contrast, dependents of migrant workers who die receive up to about RM23,000 (usually much less after “deductions”). Those who are disabled receive a token sum and are dispatched home as they are of no more use to us. There is no consideration given to costs of follow-up medical treatment or for temporary or permanent loss of earnings, which are provided for national workers under Socso.

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The Bukit Kukus landslide once again draws our attention to the chronic shortcomings in the regulation of the construction industy by state agencies as well as the Construction Industry Development Board, whose silence in this matter has deafening. We must learn from the mistakes of the past so that more lives are not needlessly lost.

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