Saturday, April 26, 2008

High-rise living not suitable for estate workers - The Star

April 26, 2008 by GEETHA KRISHNAN

Housing displaced estate workers in high-rise flats should be shelved because it can give rise to a different set of social problems, said Selangor Health, Plantation Workers, Poverty and Caring Government Committee chairman Dr A. Xavier Jayakumar.

Dr Jayakumar said high-rise living broke the social network of these people who were drawn together owing to poverty.

“Just because they are asked to provide housing, estate owners should not simply build flats,” he said, following visits to the Semenyih Estate in Semenyih and Abaco Estate in Beranang on Thursday.

He also said the state was drawing up by-laws to ensure estate owners build suitable living quarters and care for the welfare of their employees following displacement.

“Estate owners have no right to shirk their responsibility simply because the land is sold or earmarked for development.

“They should not forget that these employees have slogged for them for decades,” said Jayakumar who grew up in an estate.

He was particularly appalled and saddened with the living condition of the rubber tappers in Abaco Estate.

He said the wooden houses were reminiscent of the poor accommodation provided in the 60s.

Dr Jayakumar felt angry after stepping into seventy-year-old widow M. Rajamah’s dilapidated home where the former estate worker lived alone.

Her sole possessions were a bed and some clothes.

“These conditions are simply inhumane and unacceptable in present time.

“How can the estate owner allow his employees to live this way without piped water, electricity and toilets for the past 40 years, forcing the workers to relieve themselves in the jungle?” he asked, adding that the houses fell way below the minimum housing standard.

All the 14 families living and working in the rubber estate earn an average of RM500 and below monthly which puts them in the hardcore poor bracket because the country’s poverty line is RM650.

The workers are paid daily wages where one kilogramme of rubber is bought for 50 sen but they cannot tap rubber if it rains.

One worker said she only earned RM42 last month although the Malayan Agricultural Producers Association (Mapa) has set the guaranteed minimum wage at RM420.

The workers who spoke to Dr Jayakumar also said they were threatened not to lodge reports with the authorities by the estate owner.

Social worker S. Arutchelvan, who visits Abaco regularly, said the workers were further enslaved to the estate through micro loans that they could not afford to repay or take decades to settle due to their dismal income.

He said many complaints were filed with the Labour Department but an official who was present claimed there were no reports from Abaco.

He added that an immediate effort to improve life in the estate would be to offer skills training for the youth and to obtain birth certificates and MyKads for those without documents.

Dr Jayakumar, who also visited Semenyih Estate with Hulu Selangor assemblyman Datuk Dr Zainal Abidin Ahmad and Kajang assemblyman Lee Kim Sin, found the living conditions better there.

Only foreign contract workers were hired and the company had provided accommodation for the displaced estate workers elsewhere. Only a few families remain at the estate.

Resident M. Uma said they wanted better public amenities like drinking water. The storage tank where the water was stored emitted a foul smell and Zainal Abidin pointed out that worms could be seen at the bottom.

Dr Jayakumar said drainage in the estate would be improved while clean water would be provided.

He also said all estate owners were invited for a high-tea at a hotel in Shah Alam at 4pm on April 29.

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