From luxury condos to overcrowded quarters

Home and away: The three-storey units in Sungai Ara near Bayan Lepas, which are being used to house up to 30 foreign workers each.

GEORGE TOWN: As Penang’s economy recovers and the need for labour intensifies, even RM1.25mil apartments are being converted into workers’ quarters.

And their neighbours are unhappy.

To buy one, these nearly 2,000 sq ft apartments command RM1.25mil on property websites. To rent, it is RM1,500 to RM2,800 a month, depending on the furnishings.

With only two units a floor, four rooms in each, they are spacious homes in a low density block.

Recently, 14 workers were moved into one of the units. If we estimate a rent of RM2,000, add RM500 for utilities, and divide that by 14, the cost is RM178 a worker.

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We learned that these workers serve at a successful restaurant in a prime shopping complex here.

The apartment is located in the Pulau Tikus suburb, beside the Gurney Drive neighbourhood.

Their workplace is 500m away. Across the street from their apartment are two banks. The post office is less than 100m down the road. The Pulau Tikus market is 250m away.

About 300m away is Wat Chayamangkalaram, a tourist attraction that has one of the longest reclining Buddha statues in the world.

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Some of the best char koay teow, Hokkien mee, chicken rice, and nasi kandar available on the island are within a 10-minute stroll from the apartment complex.

Its management committee (MC) and building management company tried urging owners to stop (or be stopped from) renting their units out to whoever houses foreign workers. They even wrote to the Human Resources Ministry and Penang Island City Council’s Commissioner of Buildings.

The day the workers moved in, the MC chairman, who declined to be named, said the pump that sends water to the rooftop tanks worked overtime. “I could hear the pump groaning late into the night.

“Every other unit has only two to five residents and some only come back to stay during the holidays,” he said.

Of the four rooms, three had four beds each – double-deckers – while the fourth and smaller room had two beds. There were standing fans near the beds.

The MC chairman rang up Pulau Tikus assemblyman Chris Lee, who promptly met the committee to discuss a way forward.

Lee said all apartment owners should comply with the shared house rules of the property and urged MCs to study these provisions to make changes accordingly.

“If foreign workers or any other residents become a nuisance, then the police can be contacted to look into the matter. Employers are required by law to provide decent housing for their foreign workers.

“These workers form the backbone of our economy. We cannot say we want progress and yet don’t want foreign workers,” he stressed.

Lee said the state government’s long-term plan is to facilitate the development of dedicated foreign workers’ residential complexes.

“As a progressive state, we want foreign workers to have a comfortable stay.

“The state government has been working hard to facilitate the construction of proper, contained workers hostels to prevent disruptions to Penangites’ lives.

“Penangites must understand that growing our economy is important to stay competitive. Growing our economy to the point of no longer needing foreign workers will take time,” he added.

In the Sungai Ara neighbourhood of landed houses, seven out of 75 three-storey homes were housing 30 foreign workers each.

State housing and local government committee chairman Jagdeep Singh Deo said the state had approved several workers’ hostel developments and is studying proposals for more.

“We understand the need for locals to have minimal social disruptions as we progress. We also empathise with the need of businesses to have proper housing for their foreign workers,” he said.

“Penang is growing fast. We are working as fast as we practicably can to ensure all needs are met.”

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