Tuesday, October 26, 2021

‘Constantly worried’: migrant worker slogs through pandemic to feed his family back home

Life in Sarawak is hard for Sonata but he knows it might be worse if he returns to his village in Jakarta.

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Sonata, a migrant worker from Indonesia, arrived in Malaysia about a year ago in the hope of finding a job and providing a better life for his family back home.

But about a year ago was also when the Covid-19 crisis became full-blown, resulting in a three-month lockdown across the country.

The 28-year-old arrived from Jakarta in Kuching, Sarawak, just a month before the movement control order (MCO) took effect. At first, he thought things would return to normal within a few weeks. But a few weeks stretched into months as infections continued and the MCO was extended time and time again.

Sonata was left stranded with no food or money as he had yet to start working when the lockdown was announced.

“I only brought 500,000 rupiah (about RM70) with me, not enough to eat for more than a week,” he told MalaysiaNow.

“I would just stay in the room and be hungry a lot of the time.”

With few options before him, he spent the long months sitting in the small rented room which he shared with two others in the city.

“I would just stay in the room and be hungry a lot of the time,” he said. “I only ate once a day, whatever dry food that I had.”

Sometimes, he would sneak out late at night to search for anything he could eat, including fish which he occasionally managed to catch from the drains.

He was too afraid to do anything else as he had no work permit.

Many foreign workers, especially those in the 3D or dirty, dangerous and difficult category, have been struggling to get by since the pandemic hit.

There are also many health concerns as the majority of migrant workers stay in crowded dormitories which facilitate the spread of Covid-19.

The government revealed late last year that the accommodation for some 91.1% or 1.4 million foreign workers in the country does not meet the provisions stipulated by law.

With little money and perhaps even less social protection, Sonata and others like him are left to fend for themselves as best they can.

“There is no point if I return to my village because earning an income there is hard.”

Every morning, he cycles to work at a construction site about 2km from where he stays. There, he spends the day carrying cement, sand, bricks and stones.

For eight hours of such work every day, he receives about RM1,000 a month, depending on his overtime pay.

It’s hard, back-breaking labour but he knows he has little choice.

“There is no point if I return to my village because earning an income there is hard. That’s why I became a migrant worker,” he said.

He told MalaysiaNow he is constantly afraid of contracting Covid-19 at the workplace even though he is well informed about the safety measures and how to reduce the chances of virus transmission.

“Of course I’m worried and scared, not only about myself but also about my family back in the village,” he said.

This, for Sonata, is the hardest part of being a migrant worker. He misses his family whom he has not seen since the pandemic began.

“My wife has been calling every day and crying because I cannot go back to celebrate Aidilfitri with them.

“I miss them so much – but because of this situation, like it or not, I cannot go home.”

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