Having foreign workers as neighbours has become a norm

Foreign workers ending their night shifts and returning to Macallum Street Ghaut flats in Penang at about 7am by factory bus. ( November 25 , 2021 ). - CHAN BOON KAI/The Star

GEORGE TOWN: Having foreign workers living next door has become a way of life in some parts of land-starved Penang, with as many as six to 15 of them sharing an apartment of two or three rooms.

In some apartment blocks here, entire floors are rented out as dormitory dwellings. And the signboards of multinational corporations (MNCs) are nailed onto their front doors to stake out territories.

“But we got used to it,” said Lee Thuan Chye, the management committee chairman of Block 354 in Macallum Street Ghaut here.

Lee noted that over the years, foreign workers living in his block have learnt Malaysian decency and courtesy.

“When I enter the lift, they know me and will help me press the button to my floor. They know how to live with us now.

“They know they must keep the noise down after dark because some of us have children who need to sleep early,” he said yesterday.

Having said that, Lee pointed out that foreign workers may not be good neighbours everywhere.

Lee’s neighbourhood has the advantage of being conveniently in George Town and under 20 minutes away by factory bus from Bayan Lepas Free Trade Zone via Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway.

Employment agencies rent low-medium-cost apartments in Macallum Street Ghaut and sub-let them out to MNCs. Most MNCs are members of the Responsible Business Alliance, a large global coalition of companies begun in 2004 and dedicated to ensuring ethical social and environmental practices, and housing their workers in homey environments is a good plus.

But having foreign workers next door is shown to degrade the quality of life for Penangites, and it is not something state housing committee chairman Jagdeep Singh Deo will allow to become permanent here.

His office gets a constant flow of complaints from locals about foreign workers living in their midst.

The Star has reported many times about foreign workers being litterbugs – throwing bags of kitchen waste out of their flat windows –and even urinating in public places.

They also have a reputation of being less civic-minded when using common amenities such as the lifts.

Since 2016, Penang’s long-term solution to foreign workers’ housing is to allow the construction of self-contained dormitory complexes that boast sports, entertainment and shopping amenities.

Two such facilities -- one in Batu Maung on the island and another in Bukit Minyak on the mainland -- are now in operation.

Another eight foreign workers’ dormitory complexes have been approved and awaiting local government green light on technicalities before construction begins.

Two more even larger ones have been proposed by private companies and are now under study.

In the short and medium term, Penang’s solution is to allow entrepreneurs to convert abandoned commercial shoplots and vacant factory lots into hostels, while factories with large plots can submit plans to build on-site hostels.

But the future of foreign workers’ housing seems to be dormitory complexes.

State Town and Country Planning Department deputy director Mohd Bashir Sulaiman revealed that one approved dormitory in Teluk Kumbar, on the southern end of Penang island, will be large enough to hold 25,000 workers and it will even have a shopping complex within dedicated to their retailing preferences.

“We need foreign workers to progress. They do the menial work so that Malaysian workers can master the more challenging tasks in industries,” he said.

“It is our public duty to ensure that they live comfortably in Malaysia and yet will not interfere with the lives of locals.”

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