Penang hill-side collapse: Time to call construction industry to account

Photograph: Daniel Lee

The hill-side collapse which has claimed the lives of at least one Malaysian, possibly eleven migrant workers and at least one refugee at Tanjung Bungah, Penang is sadly not much of a surprise, says the Migrant Workers Right to Redress Coalition.

Local people and groups had been warning the state government and the Penang Island City Council about the consequences of indiscriminate hill-cutting, and about this particular area, for some time.

Sadly, as is the case across the nation, the developers seem to remain unchecked, pursuing their profits at the expense of humans and environment alike. Increased flooding, landslides, and more  – the ongoing destruction of our environment and the consequences are plain for all to see. But we do not want to learn, we value profits before environment, and so we suffer the consequences.

But this is all much more than an environmental disaster. This latest incident, like incidents before this, has claimed the lives of innocent workers who were just trying to do their job. One Malaysian has lost his life in terrible circumstances. The others who died are not from Malaysia.

It is a fact that the majority of the workers in the construction industry are migrants or refugees. As we know, many are working in situations of debt bondage, in working conditions which are not monitored and which break labour laws on so many levels, where health and safety is put to one side, where their housing is overcrowded shacks without any proper sanitation or standards, and where insurance and compensation may or may not be protecting the worker in case of mishap. In other words, many are working in conditions which can be described as modern-day slavery.

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In this latest tragedy, let us hope that the full circumstances of the employment of the migrant workers and refugees who have given their lives so tragically are investigated and made public. We need to know details of all and any companies, contractors and/or sub-contractors responsible for the employment of the migrant workers and any refugees at this site. We need to know the terms and conditions of such employment – are the workers all documented, are they fully protected and insured, or are they undocumented and working without protection or insurance? We need to know the full details of all health and safety precautions taken to protect the workers at this site.

And we need to know the full details of how much compensation is being paid to the respective families of the workers and how that has been delivered. What is the amount of the compensation paid to each family? Assuming that some compensation is being paid (which may or may not be a good assumption), is this adequate? Do we need to review the statutory provisions and statutory amounts paid in tragic circumstances like this one? How do we ‘value’ lives?

We call upon the authorities and any official inquiry to address these issues. For the issues are systemic to the construction industry; this is not a ‘one-off’ exception and should not be treated as such. It is testament to the way the industry approaches their environmental responsibilities, and it should be made testament to the way they treat their workforce. Who are they employing and on what terms and conditions are they employing them?

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How can we continue to allow an industry to continue to show such scant respect to human beings and to our environment? Why has for so long nothing been done about it? Are they so powerful? Are we really so happy to watch Malaysians, migrant workers and refugees being sacrificed at our altar of ‘development’, and our environment come tumbling down in the name of ‘progress’ (read ‘profit’)? When will those in positions of authority say ‘enough’ and do something?

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  1. To the developer and contractor, the ultimate end is profits. Safety and health of workers, whether foreign or local are secondary. To the local authorities, whether Council, Penang Water Authority, Tenaga, Land office, IRB, more development means more income, through their supply of services. All approvals are very close to the borderline if possible as everyone wants to benefit. The professional architects, engineers and contractors depend on all these developments. Stop them they close shop and sell goreng pisang on the road side. The furniture factories will end up exporting all their products overseas, if there are no buildings developed. Supermarkets cannot survive if no development and no customers. All of which are very interconnected.

    In the case of the Tg. Bungah tragedy, the developer and contractor should not have allowed the worker’s quarters to be built next to the slope. They should have reinforced the slope before they start their operation so close to the hill slope. I am not an engineer, but common sense should tell you that. I believe the developer and contractor are not prepared to spend more money to provide safety for its workers in this case. The local authorities should have insisted that this was done, before giving approval.

    Malaysia depends so much on foreign workers in our building industry. Almost every building site, the brick layers and workers are foreigners. If they had stayed back in their own country, Malaysia will remain a serene kampong. If we need them, apart from paying them decent wages, which our own citizens and workers will not accept, we must be decent enough to value their lives, for upon them depend the families in their home country, wives and mothers sacrificing their company and love, looking after young children while their fathers toiled away like slaves in a foreign country. Malaysia must have laws forcing the developer and contractors who employed these foreign workers to provide them with proper sleeping quarters and houses, medical attention, proper insurance coverage in case of accidents and deaths. These insurance policies must include provision for the future of the worker’s wife and children, apart from an undertaking that the deceased remains must be repatriated to his own home country, to his family.

    In this globalized world now, human dignity and value have lost their meaning to those who only want to be rich.


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