‘We can only pray’ – helping broke, hungry, foreign families furloughed from work

Workers at a construction site in Shah Alam have no choice but remain in their cramped kongsi after work is halted due to the MCO.

SHAH ALAM: The van has finally arrived, and hungry children rush out to greet it.

But as it reverses up to the shacks, the menacing sky opens and teeming rain roars down on corrugated roofs.

Thunderclaps send the soaking kids scrambling back to the makeshift shelter of their flimsy “kongsi” communal homes.

This shanty neighbourhood, sandwiched between affluent houses and towering office blocks, is temporary home to around 80 Indonesian and Bangladeshi construction workers, several with accompanying wives and children.

A worker’s wife carries essential food items to her kongsi.

Just a few weeks ago the men here were earning up to RM65 a day, until the movement control order (MCO) halted construction work and they were all laid off.

Their cash has run out, and they are getting nothing from their employers. Hunger is now a daily fact. How to feed their children, a constant worry.

Fortunately for them, they have not been totally forgotten.

The arriving van is on a mercy mission bringing desperately needed groceries for family meals, bought with money donated by concerned people from as far away as Spain who found a Facebook page and decided to help.

Suandit, 43, is head of this desolate, cramped community. “All we can do is pray,” he tells FMT.

Herbert Wong, his wife Ririn and volunteers have delivered aid to some 1,000 laid off construction workers.

His fears over the lack of work, money and food are compounded by thoughts of loved ones undergoing similar trials back home in Indonesia.

While working, any money Suandit saved was sent back home to East Java to support his aging parents and siblings. That’s impossible now.

“This year I can’t send money home for Ramadan,” he says, as thunder rumbles in the gloom.

The rickety plywood shacks provide shelter but little else, and life is far from comfortable. Electricity is supplied by generator only during the hours of darkness.

They rely on friends working security on the paralysed construction site to buy food essentials for them.

“We eat twice a day. Instant noodles for breakfast, and in the evening rice and egg.” says Suandit.

Herbert Wong’s van is a mercy to workers, as it brings desperately needed groceries for family meals.

Several different companies paid their wages, but not a single one has come to their aid now that they are desperate.

“We don’t want to call our bosses to borrow money. If we can’t work how will we pay them back?”

But not everyone has forgotten these victims of the MCO, praying daily for help.

Today, their prayers have been answered by Caremongering Malaysia, a Facebook group set up to gather basic groceries and deliver them to destitute communities such as Suandit’s.

Herbert Wong and his wife Ririn are Caremongers. The couple and fellow volunteers have delivered aid to some 1,000 laid off construction workers.

It is their van, loaded with needed foodstuff, that has arrived today.

As the pelting rain turns to drenching drizzle, the bespectacled and masked Wong tells FMT, “We visit people who cry because they don’t have any food. Some of them only eat once a day just to eke out what they have.”

He says he understands why many employers can’t afford to help their furloughed workers as their own cash flows have been ravaged by the MCO.

Shah Alam, 23 April 2020 - Helbert Wong, 50 runs a food aid for the foreign workers who live in a "Kongsi" house in Glenmarie, Shah Alam.
When it pours, workers and their families scramble back to the makeshift shelter of their flimsy kongsi.

He appeals to all Malaysians to do what they can to help those in need all across the nation at a local level.

“Everyone helps one another. I am even getting donors from Spain sending money by PayPal to help people here.”

The downpour finally eases off, and Suandit and his colleagues unload the van.

Each family gets a 5kg bag of rice, a tray of eggs, pots of instant noodles, bags of cooking oil, and dates for Ramadan.

Suandit’s kongsi is now filled with a little more hope, and there are even smiles as the families begin to cook their rations. Tonight they’ll all eat well.

The rain gushes in torrents off their roofs. The MCO has been extended again. This will be their life for a few more weeks yet.

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