The Shantytowns of Cheap Labour

In Malaysia, migrant workers are forced to live in poor, unhygienic conditions, often right at the foot of the multi-million project they are helping to build.

Malaysia’s construction industry is plagued by the existence of ramshackle plywood ghettos, known as “kongsi”.

Hundreds of people can be stuffed into these makeshift ghetto structures, with cramped spaces and poor hygiene facilities. These terrible conditions often lead to outbreaks of contagious diseases.

“The main problem is sanitation. The toilets are filthy and we use the same water for bathing and for drinking.” — Jamal, a Bangladeshi college student who was tricked into coming to Malaysia to work under a student visa.

Poor safety and sanitation

Makeshift cooking within plywood structures can lead to uncontrollable fires to break out. Photo from The Star.

Rooms are often plywood shacks stacked two stories high, or shipping containers, packed close to each other. Electricity is usually tapped from the nearby construction site, and to save costs, workers usually set up their own kitchens, using gas stoves.

It is filled with fire hazards, with no clear fire escape routes. More than a few kongsi have caught fire before, with fatal results.

“Employers provide these kinds of housing to their workers because they can get away with it.” — Ashik Rahman, founder and executive director of Migrant88, a migrant rights advocacy group.

Undocumented and Unseen

Threadbare privacy, comfort, and sanitation. Photo from The Star.

Thousands of migrant workers live in kongsi across Malaysia. The majority claim they are undocumented through no fault of their own, having been cheated by agents, employers, or colleges of their life savings, all in hopes of a better life in Malaysia.

In many cases, individuals are tricked into entering the country as students, only to be forced into working in their current conditions.

These workers also have to avoid the authorities, as because being deported would mean all the money they had spent coming to Malaysia would have been for nothing. Due to their status as undocumented immigrants, they have no avenue for legal recourse, and are forced to suffer in silence.

Positive change in the horizon

These structures, made of plywood walls and zinc roofs, often house hundreds of migrant workers in squalid conditions. Photo from The Star.

Lawmakers under the Construction Industry Development Board are currently pushing for laws that can adequately safeguard construction workers’ rights to basic health and safety.

Malaysia’s Labour Department has received multiple applications from companies to build centralised labour quarters (CLQs).

CLQs have already been enforced in countries like Singapore and Dubai to provide better living conditions for construction workers, with amenities like dining halls and recreational spaces.

But until employers are legally required to provide decent housing to their workers, these terrible conditions will continue to pervade the construction industry.

The abuse of human rights seems to be a recurring issue throughout the history of construction, across various countries, and sometimes linked with human-trafficking.

This is not an issue exclusive to Malaysia; we can and should consider how we can support local efforts to ensure zero abuse in construction.

Check out your local NGOs for more information regarding the conditions migrant workers in your country experience.

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