LAST Sunday, the 47 Malaysians who had been detained for two months in a Cambodian provincial jail returned home after being released.
Among them were 40 Sarawakians who arrived on a chartered flight paid for by the state government to an emotional reunion with their families at Kuching International Airport.
The former detainees said they were duped into going to Cambodia by lucrative job offers which did not materialise. Instead, they were arrested on Dec 11 on suspicions of involvement in illegal online gambling and fraud.
Following talks between the Malaysian and Cambodian governments, they were released on Feb 15 and brought back two days later.
It's a happy ending, it would seem, to an unfortunate episode, although questions remain about the hows and whys of the job scam, which is now being investigated by the police after reports were lodged by some of the victims.
But the aftermath gave rise to a quite extraordinary spat between a politician and a trade union leader on the issue of jobs, or the lack thereof, in Sarawak.
After the detainees' return, Sarawak MTUC secretary Andrew Lo called on the state government to prioritise creating decent jobs so that Sarawakians would not have to look elsewhere for employment.
"There will always be cases of workers duped by promises of high-paying jobs overseas, especially in more economically advanced countries.
"But it is embarrassing that our youths believe that Cambodia offers better opportunities than Sarawak," he said, adding that thousands of Sarawakian youths had been seeking better jobs outside the state for years.
Datuk Idris Buang from Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu took exception to this, saying it was "outrageous" to suggest that the state government was not doing anything about creating jobs.
The PBB information chief also accused Lo of making a personal statement without getting the approval of MTUC's office-bearers.
Coming to Lo's defence, Sarawak MTUC said all his statements were approved by the MTUC division in the state.
It didn't end there, as Lo issued another statement expressing shock that PBB was resorting to personal attacks and "wild accusations" against union officials instead of addressing issues affecting workers in Sarawak.
Idris countered that Lo's statement was not endorsed by the union and that his claims were "crude, random and unprofessional".
This is really quite an astonishing response to valid, if critical, observations about job opportunities in the state. Moreover, Lo is not the first person to raise this matter.
Shortly after news of the detention broke, the Sarawak Women for Women Society noted that Sarawakian youths were vulnerable to unscrupulous operators due to the lack of jobs in rural areas and low pay across many sectors in the state.
"More effort is needed from all quarters, including the business sector, to offer our youth a path to prosperity at home," it said, adding that better local working conditions and respect for labour would help prevent human trafficking in Malaysia.
Despite the tit-for-tat between Lo and Idris, we shouldn't lose sight of the bigger picture, which is not just the need for decent, well-paying jobs at home as a means to prevent Sarawakians from being lured by fake job offers but also our attitude towards workers, to treat them fairly and equip them for good jobs.
As SWWS said, the arrest of our citizens in Cambodia should be a wake-up call and action is needed at many levels so that it will not happen again.
The state government and NGOs would do well to work together to address this issue instead of engaging in needless quarrels.
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