While celebrating this auspicious occasion, Dayak ministers and leaders must spare some thoughts on improving the livelihood and socio-economic status of many fellow Dayaks employed in the state’s blue collar sector.
THE Gawai Dayak is a significant festival celebrated in Sarawak on June 1 every year. It was formally gazetted as a public holiday on September 25, 1964.
It became a symbol of unity, aspiration and hope for the Dayak community.
Today, it is an integral part of Dayak’s social life. It is a thanksgiving day marking good harvest and a time to plan for the new farming season or activities ahead. It is both a religious and social occasion. The word Gawai means a ritual or festival whereas Dayak is a collective name for the native ethnic groups of Sarawak’s Iban and Bidayuh people.
On this day, the Dayaks would visit their friends and relatives open house.
Such visit is more commonly known as ngabang in the Iban language.
In the true Malaysian spirit, other races also join in the celebration as the homes of the Dayaks longhouses are opened to visitors and guests. Traditionally, when guests arrive at a longhouse, they will be given the ai tiki as a welcome gesture.
From time to time, guests will also be served tuak. This would be called nyibur temuai which literally means “watering of guests”.
Tuak are locally brewed from glutinous rice and drinking the sweet, addictive and deceptively strong drink is an integral part of the celebrations.
As I wish all my Dayak friends, colleagues and relatives (I do have Dayak relatives which is typical in a multicultural society in Sarawak), perhaps it is time to also reflect on the achievement and socio-economic status of the Dayaks.
Sure there are many Dayak professionals with some holding high-ranking position in the government. Dayak off-shore workers are also world-renowned for their skills and resilience in the oil and gas industry.
At the state level, we also have a Dayak Deputy Chief Minister and several other Dayak Ministers. We have our fair share of and elected representatives (YBs) who are Dayaks, at both state and parliamentary level.
Our first Chief Minister Tan Sri Stephen Kalong Ningkan, who served from July 22, 1963 to September 1966, is also a Dayak.
Because of this, and with Dayak comprising close to 40% of the population, one would have reasonably expected that Dayaks would enjoy a larger share of the state’s economic pie and wealth.
However, Dayak girls have long performed menial jobs as waitresses, supermarket girls and shop assistants. The forced closure of many food outlets and eateries around the city during this time of the year testify to this.
Before the influx of Indonesian maids, many Dayak girls were also household maids.
Dayak workers and labourers have long formed the backbone of the timber, plantation and the construction industries. I strongly feel and think that all of them should also be presented with a golden membership medal by the Sarawak Timber Association for their contributions to the timber industry.
It is very disappointing that their contributions are not recognised by the industry players. The workers have shed sweat and tears and toiled from sunrise till sundown during dry seasons. Some have paid with their lives.
Incidents of work-related accidents and fatalities in the timber industry are among the highest.
Unfortunately, these industries and sectors continue to pay the lowest though they demand the most working hours, according to a minimum wage briefing by the Minimum Wage Technical Committee in 2011.
They are among the most ferocious opponents of minimum wage.
The implementation of minimum wage is most welcomed. However more must be done.
On Friday, May 30 evening, I was shopping at one of the latest shopping centres in the city and was attended to by a pleasant Dayak salesgirl.
I asked her why she was not going back to her longhouse yet.
She told me that she was still waiting for her salary to be paid.
Come on! It was already the 30th of the month but she was still waiting for her pay.
Being the busybody that I am, I ask where is her boss.
“Ye udah ke Ostralia olidey”. (The boss already went off to Australia for holiday.)
So the boss had the money for holiday but none to pay for a month’s salary — most likely the minimum wage of RM800 — a few days earlier to enable the salesgirl to celebrate Gawai?
Some other employers claimed that they allowed their employees to have salary advance.
The Sarawak Labour Ordinance stipulates that salaries must not be paid later than the 7th day of the following month.
This means that employers actually owe their workers five-week interest-free salary.
As such, a salary advance is not actually an “advance” — it’s already earned by the employees.
Then you have other businesses claiming that they cannot afford to pay higher wages as their business turnover is not good. We often hear their perennial complains that sales during the festive occasions is decreasing year-on-year.
How do businesses expect people to buy things if their meagre salary is not even enough to pay for their loans?
Real business and entrepreneurs must not treat low-income workers as people to be exploited, but as customers to be cultivated. The more they earn, the higher purchasing power they will possess; hence the more business they will generate. Everybody gains.
Instead we have a vicious circle of low wages, low demand and low business.
I have handled numerous cases of salaries not being paid. Given the Malaysian Trade Unions Congress (MTUC)’s limited resources, it is about time that Dayak leaders, be they ministers, YBs or community leaders, have a good look at themselves and together work toward improving the socio-economic status and living standards of the more than 40% of the population.
There is even a Dayak assistant minister who fully supported the timber industry’s request to defer the implementation of the minimum wage for three years.
I am hopeful that these leaders would rise to the challenge of ensuring that a high-income nation is for everybody, instead of being too pre-occupied with fighting amongst themselves on who should lead what party.
Selamat Hari Gawai Dayak, everybody. Gayu guru, gerai nyamai.