Penang landslide tragedy: Are construction workers’ lives too cheap to matter?

We need the political will to boldly set right a sector of labour that is often highly exploitative and inhumane towards workers, says Rani Rasiah.

PSM supports the call to issue a stop-work order on all hillside construction projects.

The number of lives lost is far too many for the usual knee-jerk reaction of threats and warnings that eventually fade into inaction and silence.

According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (Niosh), the landslide on 19 October 2018 at a ‘paired road’ construction site in Bukit Kukus in Paya Terubong, which took seven lives, was the result of poor occupational safety and health practices. Meaning, the construction company did not take occupational safety and health regulations seriously and placed its workers’ lives in danger – even after receiving a stop-work order.

Many construction site deaths have been due to defiance of worksite safety regulations. So why does it continue to happen? Are construction workers lives too cheap to matter?

Indeed, even before all the bodies have been found, the contractor has tried to abdicate responsibility for paying compensation for the deaths and injuries. He has declared that the dead are all illegal workers. Therefore, there will be no compensation.

Thanks to gaps and inadequacies in our migrant labour policies, the construction sector has a large concentration of undocumented workers. A migrant worker entering the country with a work permit under a particular construction company becomes undocumented once the company completes its project(s). Working for any other employer renders the worker undocumented or ‘illegal’.

The Pakatan Harapan government is now in the process of meeting stakeholders to collect recommendations to improve the labour migration situation. More than ideas on what can be done, we need the political will to boldly set right a sector of labour that is often highly exploitative and inhumane towards workers.

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The 11th Malaysia Plan spells out the fundamental changes needed to revamp the situation. The previous government paid little regard to it and in fact, made decisions that contradicted it. PH should take the proposals seriously and urgently act on them.

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