These hostel blocks might turn into a slum to the detriment of the workers’ health and wellbeing, warns Ravinder Singh.
I refer to Penang Island City Council’s claim that the foreign workers’ hostel project in Batu Maung meets all requirements of the law (“Nothing wrong with Penang foreign workers’ hostel, says council”).
Batu Maung residents were told by the executive councillor for local government and housing at a dialogue session on 27 July 2019 that a special guidelines were drawn up for the construction of workers’ hostels or dormitories in Penang based on the Singapore standard as the government wanted to provide them “first class” dorms.
When questioned about some non-compliance with the guidelines, he emphasised that “approval is not given blindly”.
At a meeting at the city council on 8 October 2019 attended by residents’ representatives, the the Town and Country Planning Department director again stressed that the guidelines for the dorms would be strictly followed.
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When asked if the guidelines override the Uniform Building By-laws and other laws or regulations, it was affirmed by her that they do. So if the guidelines had any provisions more stringent than the building by-laws, the guidelines would be enforced. This is well and good on paper, but what is the reality on the ground?
The residents therefore want answers to the following:
» Two eight-storey hostel blocks have been completed to house 5,000-plus workers. Another block was proposed beside the two blocks, increasing the capacity to about 9,000. The state assemblyman for Batu Maung and executive council member Abdul Halim Hussain had with good reasons objected to the third block. Why was his objection brushed aside without giving any explanation?
» The perimeter road around the two completed eight-storey blocks is a fire access. But when constructing the third block, 57 bus parking lots have been created on this fire access. Did the Fire and Rescue Department approve this? If so, why? Could the department please clarify as it concerns safety?
» The plans for the third seven-storey block show the fire access around the eight-storey blocks as a service road around a commercial area. What was the reason for misrepresenting the two completed eight-storey hostel blocks as “commercial” buildings to get approval for the third block?
» Access road to a workers’ hostel in an industrial area has to be 66 feet wide. In this case, Solok Beringin which serves a light industrial area is only 40 feet wide. Why was the developer not required to surrender a strip of his land for widening this road when such a condition is imposed in other cases?
» 10% of the project area is required to be set aside as an open space (on the grounds) for recreational activities (eg handball games and sepak takraw). Such an open space cannot be seen at the site. The workers will then look for open spaces in the nearby housing estates to use for their recreational purposes! Isn’t creating social problems for local communities against the rules of setting up workers’ hostels?
» Workers’ hostels are supposed to be within walking distance of their workplaces to reduce traffic congestion on busy roads. In Batu Maung, the opposite is true. They are kilometres away from the free industrial zone, and over 100 40-seater buses will be required to transport them per shift. This will take about 3.5 hours per shift for the buses to enter Solok Beringin (a very short dead-end road) to pick up and drop off the workers and exit the same way into busy Jalan Permatang Damar Laut, a four-lane highway joining the second bridge to the airport. This is going to create a massive daily traffic snarl (more than once a day) on this very busy highway. Doesn’t this conflict with the guidelines?
» A petrol station has been built at the sharp corner and the junction of the two roads, very close to the hostel blocks. The plan shows the entry to the station is 60m from the junction, but as built it is only 26m. Why did the road safety unit of the Public Works Department approve this change?
» There is no proper drainage around the site. Rainwater from the site can flow into an unmaintained earth ditch that leads to nowhere and which is stagnant most of the time and possibly a mosquito breeding ground. Does this meet the requirements of the health department?
» There is no buffer zone between the hostel blocks and the nearby residences, which will suffer from serious noise and air pollution from the hostel premises and the large number of buses emitting diesel fumes and engine noises. The air and noise pollution will also affect the occupants of the hostels who need a good rest after long working hours (12-hour shifts).
» If planning approval for the construction of three hostel blocks to house almost 9,000 adults had been made in a single application, would it have complied with all the requirements of the guidelines and been approved (without showing parking lots in the fire access and calling the already constructed two hostel blocks “commercial” buildings)?
We have seen the other hostel in Bukit Minyak for comparison and have no hesitation to say that the Batu Maung hostel is a far cry from the “latest fourth generation dorms” comparable to those in Singapore, as claimed by an executive council member (Free Malaysia Today, 13 August 2018).
Multinational companies that may be planning to house their workers in this hostel project must ensure that all the hostel guidelines are strictly adhered to and that the hostel meets the description of “latest fourth generation dorms” before putting their workers in them.
With up to 9,000 adults crammed into this hostel project, which falls far short of the “first-class foreign workers’ dorms” specifications, we are afraid that it might turn into a slum to the detriment of the workers’ health and wellbeing for which the employers will have to bear responsibility.