It is detestable that the management of a Malaysian factory saw it fit to house foreign workers in accommodation that defied standards of human decency and violated the country’s laws.
The factory in Johor, which employs around 300 foreign workers, reportedly allotted five accommodation spaces – and that too in its storage area for finished products. About 65 workers were crammed into each space, which was suitable for just six people.
What was alarming was the lack of proper amenities for the workers’ daily use, such as beds and lockers to keep their belongings. Imagine, there was only one bathroom. This clearly infringes on workers’ rights.
But the problem runs much deeper.
Such mistreatment is more than a case of an employer exploiting labour. It also hints of a possible xenophobic mindset.
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The conditions at this factory are probably not an isolated example, if the past ill-treatment of migrant workers is any indication. We have heard of workers being underpaid. One domestic worker allegedly even had hot water poured onto her body. Others were beaten as punishment.
We’ve also heard accounts of foreigners (including children) facing harsh conditions under state detention.
The life of foreign workers is also deemed to be cheap, in the eyes of some employers. Haven’t we heard of workers falling to death at construction sites or perishing because of poor safety measures at their workplace?
Don’t for a moment think it’s not a big deal if foreign workers are subject to modern-day slavery. That would be a pernicious thought.
Cramming workers into small rooms is tantamount to ill-treatment. It is not something anyone would do to their fellow human beings. So it suggests a mindset that somehow sees these workers as subhuman.
Foreign workers also get short shrift in other areas. With local rice in short supply, one politician even had the temerity to call for a prohibition on foreigners buying local rice, which is much cheaper. Imagine being denied the right to buy a cheap local staple and having to stump out more for imported rice.
The term foreigners includes migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers. These groups have contributed immensely to the nation’s economic development.
Part of the local prejudice towards foreigners is due to the involvement of a small minority of foreigners in criminal activities, such as theft.
No doubt some foreigners have been involved in dark activities. But it would not be fair to tar all of them with the same brush.
Certainly, foreigners do not have a monopoly on evil deeds. Many locals do not think twice about indulging in bribery. Such bribery has led to some foreigners entering the country without proper papers or proper jobs, putting them in a vulnerable position. Don’t forget too the mega-corruption that some locals were involved in that has bled the nation’s coffers.
Putting a premium on empathy and compassion towards foreigners is not a sign of weakness. Rather, it is a sign of solidarity with our fellow human beings who are often in desperate situations.
Mustafa K Anuar
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
30 September 2023