Have We Gone To The Dogs?

Adelina Lisao was found with a swollen head and face, with burn marks to her hands and legs. She was abused and neglected by her employer and family. She died because of multiple organ failures. She was 21

I am sitting here waiting with my camera to try shoot the planet Jupiter and Mars in an hour’s time.  Both should rise in the eastern sky at that time.  The waning moon is only eight percent illuminated.  In two days’ time, we shall usher in the Year of the Dog.

Talking about dogs, three days ago a maid named Adelina Lisao died at the Bukit Mertajam Hospital.  There was swelling on her head and face, as well as injuries on her arms and legs.

A little over two years ago, Adelina who was from Medan, spent Rp. 225,000 (RM65.00) to do her medical check-up and paid Rp. 4,000,000 (RM1,156.00) to come over to Malaysia to work.  Adelina must have come from the lower income group for her to want to leave her family in search of a better life.  28 million people like her live on average monthly earnings of Rp. 354,386 (RM103.00).  Getting an average of Rp. 2.1 million (RM610.00) per month is a far better choice.

The police had attempted to record a statement from her but she was so engulfed with fear that she never spoke after she was admitted.  For a month, she was abused by her employer and family, treated like a dog and was forced to sleep on the porch with a dog.  When she was found by her rescuers, she did not speak.  All she did was shook her head.  She had burn marks on her legs and they were filled with pus.

She finally found the courage to die a day after being admitted, due to multiple organ failures.  She was only 21.  Her employer, brother and 60-year old mother were arrested by the police and have been remanded for investigations under Section 302 of the Penal Code for murder.

Nirmala Bonat – Scarred For Life

In 2008, former airline stewardess Yim Pek Ha was found guilty for three counts of causing grievous hurt to her maid Nirmala Bonat and sentenced to 12 years in jail.  Pek Ha was also ordered to pay damages of RM129,147.20 to Nirmala, who hails from Kupang.  Pek Ha and her husband appealed but the Appellate Court increased the cost of damages to RM349,496 instead.

Nirmala suffered burn scars on her body after five months of abuse.  When she broke a mug while cleaning it, Pek Ha beat her up with a clothes hanger and threw boiling water at her.  When clothes were not ironed properly, Pek Ha would take the iron from her and press it onto her back and breasts.

What have we become?

Health Is Not Wealth

We live in a world where we cannot do without a domestic helper.  We also live in a world where no Malaysian would ever want to lay bricks and do dirty, dangerous and demeaning jobs like we used to back in the 1970s and earlier.

We have 1.78 million legal foreign workers working in various sectors in Malaysia as of 2017, a reduction by about 400,000 from the previous year.  Indonesians have the highest number (728,870), followed by Nepalis (405,898), Bangladeshi (221,089), Myanmar (127,705), Indians (114,455), Pakistani (59,281), Filipinos (56,153), Vietnamese (29,039), Chinese (15,399) and Thais (12,603).  The bulk are in the construction, agricultural and manufacturing industries.

For 10 years between 2006 and 2015, 518 foreign construction workers were killed.  RM10.75 million was paid out to families of the dead as compensation.  But this compensation only applies to legally-registered workers.  Some four million illegal workers are at risk of not getting their body repatriated back to their home country, let alone get any form of compensation.

We often see foreign workers toiling the construction sites day and night.  Smaller construction companies often rely on illegal foreign workers because they cannot afford the levy.  Many of these companies are fourth of fifth level sub-contractors who do the work just to be able to survive. These companies provide their workers with sub-standard or damaged personal protection equipment, if at all.

Larger construction companies often move workers from one project site to another, depending on the demand of each phase of construction.  As a result, they stretch their workers pool razor thin and workers have to do double or even triple shifts.  In a high-potential near-miss incident I interviewed a worker about his rest time.  All he had was two hours of sleep at night, and about half an hour during lunch breaks.

The consequence of the above is the workers often suffer from lapses. Many lose limbs or die because of these lapses.  I have seen foreign workers die while resting because of heart failure.  Yet, employers put them to work for more than the 12 hours permitted by law, promising them more pay per hour for the work they do beyond the permissible hours.

In 2016, the executive director of the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF), Datuk Shamsuddin Bardan was quoted to say that employers should not be blamed for the deaths of workers who “insisted to work for overtime pay”.  He added that if their request to work overtime is not met, they would not come to work with the said employers.  He said this in response to the comment made by HE Dr Niranjan Man Singh Basnyat, the Ambassador of Nepal to Malaysia, that 70 percent of the 461 deaths of Nepali workers in Malaysia are due to a heart attack while they were asleep (Malay Mail Online, Tuesday, 14 June 2016).

I find the excuse by Shamsuddin a lame and typical excuse often given by employers of foreign workers looking for an escape clause.  The laws governing workers are there to be obeyed.  These laws, however, expect employers to self-regulate, and are open to abuse.  The other problem is enforcement of these laws are often very poor.

Deplorable Living Conditions

As a safety and health practitioner I used to visit work sites with my team to see the amenities made available to the workers.  I used to insist that contractors provide running treated water and ensure that adequate portable toilets are provided and their scheduled maintenance done as well as a roster done up for daily cleaning of the toilets.  Proper and safe designated rest areas for the workers to sit down and eat, as well as to lie down for power naps during break times had also to be made available.

I would like to specifically commend MRT Corp for providing the best living quarters for registered legal foreign workers. To enter and exit the Centralised Labour Quarters (CLQ) you need to have a valid card issued by the Construction Industry Development Board of Malaysia (CIDB) which is scanned at the autogate.  Inside the CLQ, apart from the essentials they also have a surau, kitchen for workers to cook their meals, cafeteria, sports facilities, assembly area, a sundry shop and a sick bay.  Each CLQ has 144 rooms and each room sleeps six.

But such living quarters cost millions to set up, and only accommodate the legal workers – way beyond what many smaller companies can afford.  If the illegal workers are lucky, they would be given a rented house to stay in, usually a 3-bedroom house with two or single bathrooms – and 20 of them would be housed there, if not more.  Other companies, either due to affordability or driven by profit, would just ask the workers to build their own ‘kongsi’.  These kongsis have very basic amenities.

Disease if rampant.  The most common that I have come across is cutaneous larva migrans.  These poor souls would be scratching violently in an almost impossible task to get rid of the itch.  I won’t go into the diseases that are worse.

Both the Department of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) as well as CIDB need to play a more active role in ensuring that the laws are being followed strictly.  This idea of self-regulation by employers is nothing but a farce.

What Is Wrong With Us?

These workers, legal or illegal, deserve protection from us.  They are human beings, just like us, and deserve to be treated as how we would treat our own family members. Sadly, we never look at them as fellow human beings just because we pay their wages and they work for us.

In short, we have lost our humanity, we have lost our soul. Nirmala Bonat will wake up on this Chinese New Year morning looking at her horrible scars.  Adelina Lisao will never wake up again – ever.  Sadly, we have gone to the dogs.

Gong xi fa cai.

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