LAST_UPDATEMon, 21 May 2018 8pm

Why Are We Mean Towards Foreign Workers?

They work here just like us, don't treat them like slaves/Google ImagesThey work here just like us, don't treat them like slaves/Google ImagesTHERE have been a lot of coverage on the nationwide clampdown on PATI (Pendatang Asing Tanpa Izin) in the newspapers and TV of late. Seeing how they are treated I can’t help but to empathise with the illegal immigrants.

It's clear to see that during these operations, they are rounded up like fugitives and made to squat while being handcuffed, even the pregnant women. Maybe they deserve a more humane treatment, I thought. I can only imagine how they must have felt to be sent back to where they wanted out of.

Talking about immigrants, I recalled an incident that took place one weekend. While enjoying a teh tarik session with friends at the mamak, I overheard a lady ranting about how ‘stupid’ the waiters there are – all because one of the waiters, who is a foreigner from India, didn’t take her orders right.

He could barely speak Bahasa Malaysia and looked confused when the irate woman scolded him. All he did was nod, agreeing to every word coming out from the woman's mouth.

I can’t help but to feel sorry for the guy. He could be someone with a degree from India. Or someone’s father, husband or son who had to find work here in search for a better life. Wouldn't we do the same if we had to?

Why are we mean towards foreign workers?

Bullied by Malaysians

Foreign workers are treated like animals and made to squat/Google ImagesForeign workers are treated like animals and made to squat/Google ImagesA Bangladeshi worker who only wants to be known as Jilani shared his thoughts on the treatment he receives from local people. Jilani does not wait tables at the local mamak. He works as a bartender at one of the pubs in Changkat, Bukit Bintang.

But Jilani might as well be a waiter. In his previous work, also at a bar, he had to do more than what is required of a bartender. He was never paid overtime, even after an enduring a 14-hour shift, which is way longer compared to his Malaysian colleagues.

Fed-up with the poor treatment he received, he decided to quit the bartender job. Thinking that this would end his misery, he was hit with yet another difficulty. His Malaysian ex-employer refused to pay his wage, leaving him broke and feeling hopeless. As a Bangladeshi, he knew at that time that there was nothing much he could do to rectify the problem. Who would want to listen to his plea? Fortunately, he managed to find a new bartender job at another pub.

Even with the new job, he still gets weird looks from the public, and they look uncomfortable to be around him. He reckons it is because he looks like a lowly "Bangla" worker.

“Not every Banglas are bad. Some of us may not be educated and are poor back in Bangladesh, but we do work hard here and all we want is a better life for ourselves,” said Jilani.

“I wish the government can make things easier for foreign workers like us, but I’m still blessed to have a life here and this is 100 times better than what I had in my own country,” shared the 25 years-old.

Another foreigner, who just wanted to be called Phyo, always fears for her safety here.

Malaysians are against discrimination but are quick to brand people the derogatory "Bangla" title without guilt/Google ImagesMalaysians are against discrimination but are quick to brand people the derogatory "Bangla" title without guilt/Google ImagesPhyo from Myanmar envies young Malaysians who get to pursue their tertiary education. For her, she had to put aside her ambition to study and leave home to help her poor family. Now, she does waitressing in Kuala Lumpur.

Despite owning the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) card,which protects registered refugees from getting arrested, Phyo said some personnel from local authorities do misuse their legal power. Sometimes, these personnel would ‘ask’ for money from the refugees and threaten to arrest them if they refuse to comply.

“I am petrified to go out. I heard a lot of claims from other refugees about what the officers have done to them,” said the Burmese with a sigh.

Phyo said foreigners like her are often victims of racial attacks. When she was living in a flat in Kuala Lumpur, foreigners were regularly blamed for any leakages or break-ins. Scared to be a target for racial prejudice, she moved out to a better location.

Educated foreigners

Overstayed their welcome but rounded up like criminals/Google ImagesOverstayed their welcome but rounded up like criminals/Google ImagesA couple who wish to be known only as Ko-Ko and Eu-Wei has quite a story to tell. The duo fled Myanmar not only to live a better life but to escape the military junta there too.

Working as restaurant workers somewhere near Damansara, the couple was reunited last 2012. The husband, Ko-Ko, came four years earlier than his wife, Eu-Wei. Ko-Ko is a degree holder majoring in Geography while his wife is a Zoologist.

“We had to leave the country because we were the target of the junta in Myanmar. I fled along with some group of people. We used the jungle to reach Thailand’s border and once there, we became refugee.

“We were under the protection of United Nations. And after some years in Thailand, I was sent to Malaysia. And I love this country so much,” said Ko-Ko remembering the days when he first arrived.

Eu-Wei too escaped Myanmar with the same approach. She walked for weeks in the jungle and had to overcome fear of being attacked by animals as well as being chased by the junta.

“I had nothing with me except for the clothes I wore. There was no food and no drinks. While in the jungle, the juntas spotted us and fired some shots. Some of my friends were killed in the attack but I escaped unhurt,” teary-eyed Eu-Wei said in Bahasa Malaysia, which she had picked up after several months in the country.

After reaching Thailand, Ko-Ko had to borrow RM1,000 from his employer to get his wife to Malaysia. Finally, after many tribulations and years of separation, the couple was reunited.

Is this necessary?/Google ImagesIs this necessary?/Google ImagesAsked on the ways Malaysians are to them, the couple didn’t take it to heart when local people are treating them badly. They admit that they’ve met a lot of good hearted Malaysians too.

“Not everyone is as mean. But we don’t care that much about all that. We are just blessed to be here earning some money and being safe in the arms of each other,” said Ko-Ko.

Why are we the way we are?

University Tunku Abdul Rahman’s Centre for Media and Creative Communication’s dean, Associate Professor Dr. Chin Yee Mun thinks that locals tend to categorise foreigners when they come in contact with them.

“When Malaysians interact with any foreign workers, regardless of their origin, they often see themselves as a better and stronger group and the foreigners are merely minorities. There’s rarely any emphasis on the race, but more on their nationality,” he said.

Asked on why Asian foreigners are being disrespected more compared to the Westerners, Chin said it was due to the social stigma by the public towards these two.

Foreigners who migrated from other Asian countries, such as from Bangladesh, Indonesia or Myanmar, are ‘branded’ as low-skilled migrant workers whilst the Westerners, are labeled as high-skilled and called expatriates, which has a more positive connotation to it. So, most Malaysians see the Westerners as a ‘better’ group of people to mingle with.

“As a community, we make interpretations about foreigners according to where they are from and this is heavily influenced by what we heard or seen from the media. When we don’t know them well, we tend to make up assumptions about them. This is how prejudice is being born,” he added.

“I believe not all Malaysians are treating them unfairly. If all of us are as such, there won’t be an increase of foreigners in this country. As a matter of fact, we need them as much as they need us.

“Their presence contributes to a more complex Malaysian society and we need to approach this flood of foreigners wisely and learn how to manage the changes they bring in our society,” Chin explained.

University Malaya’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences’ Mashitah Hamidi (from the Department of Anthropology and Sociology) believes that foreign workers will grab whatever economic opportunities unclaimed by Malaysians.

“Most locals refuse to take on the low-skilled jobs in the country. As a result, we don’t have the manpower to do the jobs that the foreigners are doing. Malaysians are becoming complacent because they are living a comfortable life. No one wants to work as a construction worker or work at the petrol stations.

“But for these migrants, another person’s loss means another person’s gain for them. Even with the low wage, they are still satisfied because it is so much better than what they have back home,” she said.

“We have yet to have any law protecting foreign workers. I think there should be at least a legal guideline to protect female migrant workers, especially those in the domestic help sector,” added Mashitah.

It is not as bad as we think it is, or is it?

Shakirah Zain/mDShakirah Zain/mDFor Shakirah Zain, 49, a freelance translator, she agreed that there were occasions where foreigners were mistreated by Malaysians.

“I think the situation is worse in countries like Singapore, Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia,” Shakirah said.

An assistant manager Lai Mae thinks that the foreign workers are treated fine by the public.

"The situation is not as bad as what the media reports.

“I believe that they are important to some extent because of their productivity and efficiency. But yes, we need to treat them with respect still,” said the 28-year-old.

Twenty three year-old public relation officer Prithi Menon said the way we treat foreigners depends on the individual.

“Majority of foreign workers do reap from the benefit of having good Malaysian employers. But the way we treat them all boils down to the attitude of the person,” she said.

Unfortunate cases

Over the years, the country has listed thousands of cases where foreign workers are being mistreated.

Prithi MenonPrithi MenonIn 2004, an abuse case involving 19 year-old Nirmala Bonat became the talk of the town. She was heavily abused that some of her body parts were steamed with an iron. The case was highly publicised all over the world.

Then in 2012, and Indonesian maid, 21 year-old Suryani Abdullah was reported by Utusan Malaysia to be abused by her employer. Suryani was saved after she ran away from her employer’s home in Sungai Petani and when she was found, she was covered with wounds and bruises all over.

And these are only two out of thousands of cases reported, not to mention the rape cases too.

And for many years, whenever crime seems to be on the rise Malaysians will immediately jump into the conclusion that the foreign workers are behind it. But in Oct last year, Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said that majority of the crimes in Malaysia were committed by local people. Only 10 to 15 per cent of the crimes were made by foreign workers.

It is high time for Malaysians to have change of mindset. Foreigners do deserve to be treated with respect and most importantly be treated humanely. They are not slaves or a second-class community.

The next time you disrespect them, think of how it would feel to be in their shoes.