Inside the dirty, dangerous world of Malaysia's 'kongsi'


Bare existence: Migrant construction workers in Malaysia are often housed in deplorable conditions, like in the kongsi pictured above, where three men share a space with no bed. While there are codes of practice that serve as guidelines for proper workers’ housing, they do not carry the force of law.

Bare existence: Migrant construction workers in Malaysia are often housed in deplorable conditions, like in the kongsi pictured above, where three men share a space with no bed. While there are codes of practice that serve as guidelines for proper workers’ housing, they do not carry the force of law.

PETALING JAYA: Four hundred people, including women and children, stuffed into a ramshackle plywood ghetto, with just three makeshift toilets – this is just one of the deplorable scenes captured by R.AGE’s undercover journalists.

There are regular outbreaks of contagious diseases, a result of the cramped spaces and poor hygiene facilities.

But this isn’t a refugee camp, or a disaster zone. It’s the living quarters for the migrant construction workers of a beautiful high-rise condominium here in the Klang Valley.

Poor hygiene: Men and women share a communal open-air bath area, which also serves as a source of water for drinking and cooking. Behind the men are the only three toilets in the kongsi, shared by all 400 residents.

It is not an uncommon practice. There’s even a term for these makeshift ghettos in the construction industry – “kongsi”.

The Star’s R.AGE team managed to go inside a number of kongsi while filming its Student/Trafficked documentary series and anti-trafficking campaign.

The series exposes the unseen world of foreign workers, many of whom were tricked into entering the country as students, only to be forced into working – and living – in terrible conditions.

Episode two, which focuses on the victims’ living conditions, was released this morning at rage.my/trafficked.

Making do: Despite the kongsi lacking basic safety standards like fire escape routes and even fire extinguishers, meals are cooked on gas stoves within its makeshift wooden walls.

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

“It’s much better at home (in Bangladesh). Living conditions here are so bad, but I have no choice.”

Thousands of migrant workers live in kongsi across the country, and because most are undocumented, they have no avenue for legal recourse.

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.

As such, some have resorted to sleeping in nearby jungles to avoid Immigration Department raids, because being deported would mean all the money they had spent coming to Malaysia would have been for nothing.

Far from home: Most foreign workers rely on mobile phones to keep in touch with their loved ones, many of whom they haven’t seen in years. In the background stands a high-rise condominium, much like the one the migrant labourers are working on.

“I borrowed a lot of money to come to this country,” said Jamal, who paid Tk 325,000 (RM16,500, equivalent to almost two years’ wages in Bangladesh) for a one-year visa. “I can’t go back without first settling my debts.”

He said he also has to help settle his father’s debts, which were accumulated because he too came to work in Malaysia.

Safety was not much of a priority at the kongsi documented by R.AGE, either. Despite being built of plywood, many were outfitted with makeshift kitchens that use gas stoves.

In early August, a Bangladeshi national was killed when a fire ripped through his kongsi in Tapah, Perak.

“We need to remember that much of Malaysia today is built on the backs of migrant workers, and the least we can do is give them a clean, safe place to sleep,” said R.AGE senior producer Elroi Yee, who has been filming at a number of kongsi.

Flimsy set-up: The living quarters of this kongsi is a two-storey structure held up by plywood walls and a zinc roof. Around 200 men and women call this home.

Lacking proper documents, people like Jamal have no legal recourse, and even if they did, there are no laws that specifically regulate construction workers’ hostels.

Act 446, or the Workers’ Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act 1990, only covers mining and plantation workers.

There are other guidelines and recommendations, but none carry the force of law, so developers and contractors cannot be penalised for not meeting these standards.

The Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB) is trying to change this by pushing for better laws.

“We’ve requested the Human Resource Ministry to amend Act 446, to include construction workers because we feel the standards of their accommodation should be raised,” said CIDB Chief Executive Datuk Ahmad ‘Asri Abdul Hamid.

However, the amendments that will need to be made are so many that the ministry has decided to draft an entirely new Bill, which they will table at the next parliamentary sitting.

Daily grind: Workers having a meal at their makeshift housing which is separated from the construction site where they work (background) by corrugated zinc sheets.

In a written statement, MOHR’s Labour Department confirmed the Bill has just gone through its final revision and will be tabled in Parliament next year.

It also revealed that it has received 16 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 the new bill is passed and employers are legally required to provide decent housing to their workers, it’s likely those living in kongsi will continue suffering in their flimsy plywood shanties.

“It’s so difficult to live in this situation. If you’re not in the same situation as us, you will never understand it,” said one of the workers.

To read the full R.AGE story on Malaysian kongsi, go to rage.my/night-in-a-kongsi.

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