It is understandable why civil society group Lawyers for Liberty director Zaid Malek was disturbed by the Petaling Jaya City Council’s plan to impose a fare on migrant workers who use its PJ City Bus service, while Malaysians get to take the same ride for free.
As Zaid rightly said, the 90-sen bus fare, which will take effect on 15 January, is discrimination against migrant workers, whose earnings are relatively meagre.
Surely the council would not incur additional costs to its daily bus operations if these users were to use the bus service.
Such unfairness is borne out of the bigotry and xenophobia that seema to have developed over the years in some government agencies, which, in turn, helps to perpetuate the prejudices and racism harboured by the general public towards foreign workers.
As it stands, migrant workers have to deal with health, social and economic challenges. Such vulnerabilities expose them to possible abuses.
This is despite the fact that migrant workers have been playing a crucial role in our nation-building, whether in the construction, manufacturing, plantations or services sector.
According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, there were more than 1.4 million foreign workers in the country as of 31 December, with most of them working in the manufacturing sector, followed by the construction and services sectors.
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Malaysians have come to expect them to serve us at supermarkets, restaurants and petrol stations, as well as to secure our housing estates.
In Selangor, their presence is generally felt in the manufacturing, construction and services sectors.
Some tend to look down on migrant workers simply because many of these workers do jobs that are deemed dirty, dangerous and difficult – the kind of work many are loathe to do but which are considered essential.
We should be mindful that these workers are not here for a free lunch as they also contribute to our taxes and the economy. Budget 2022 estimated that RM1.7bn of taxes was collected from them in that year.
And yet, they are generally seen by many locals as a threat to our national security, which probably explains why the Ministry of Home Affairs still insists it is the ‘main custodian’ in managing migrant workers.
There are some bad apples among migrant workers who indulge in criminal activities, but to tar the entire community with the same brush is obviously unfair and only magnifies public prejudice.
Such negative depictions are further heightened on social media and reported by certain media outlets. Stereotypes like these do not help enlighten locals about this matter.
By the same token, we also have our own bad apples, some of whom are found in high places. There are exploitative employers in Malaysia, but this also does not mean that all locals are a sleazy and plundering lot.
Allowing migrant workers to use the PJ City buses for free would go a long way not only in easing their financial burden, but also in acknowledging their contributions to our collective progress and prosperity.
Is giving a free lift to all and sundry really too much to ask of the PJ City Council? -The Malaysian Insight