Construction workers make do for Hari Raya on-site

Foreign workers at a construction site in Taman Desa, Kuala Lumpur, help carry food items ahead of the Hari Raya celebration.

KUALA LUMPUR: At a construction site for a condominium project in Taman Desa, a group of men pull their face masks up over their mouths and noses and head towards the forklift.

Usually, the vehicle carries construction material like bricks and sacks of cement.

Now, though, it carries a far more precious cargo.

Carefully, the men unload trays of eggs, bags of rice, boxes of cooking oil and sacks of onions and potatoes and pile the groceries neatly outside the site.

Hari Raya is nearly here, and now there’s food for all.

The men, foreign construction workers mostly from Indonesia and Bangladesh, tote the much-needed foodstuff into unoccupied units in the blocks they were building until the movement control order (MCO) which took effect in mid-March.

Their women and children watch from the balconies of the units they are squatting in.

“There are 560 migrants living on this construction site and we want to help them get through Raya,” Sumitha Shaanthinni Kishna tells FMT.

Sumitha is head of an NGO called Our Journey, and organised the food delivery.

“Raya will be difficult here as these workers haven’t been paid since the lockdown started. So it’s going to be a subdued celebration for them.”

She says the groceries, worth RM18,000, are in addition to the normal food allocation they get to help them break their fast.

“They also have to worry about paying their rent,” she says. “And they don’t have any money to send home to their families, most of whom will be waiting for it.”

One of the workers, Shamsul Ariffin, will be spending his first Raya away from his home in Madura, Indonesia.

“It’s going to be a very different Raya for us. Normally around this time we would be decorating our places, but we don’t have any money to buy decorations. And we can’t visit our relatives,” he tells FMT.

He feels sad but is thankful for the food aid he has received. Previously, he and his co-workers had to depend on local relatives to send what food they could.

“It will be easier for us to celebrate Raya now.”

His compatriot, Siti Fatimah, who lays mosaic tiles in the units, says Raya celebrations this year will be woeful and difficult.

“If it weren’t for the MCO, I’d be visiting friends and family who live nearby.”

Still, Siti is grateful for the food she has received, saying it will help her prepare for the festivities.

This forklift comes in handy for transporting food items donated to the workers.

“At least we now have something to eat,” she says, adding that normally around this time she would be buying Raya biscuits as treats for guests. But this year the guests will not come.

Covid-19 has them all spooked. They have all been tested as per government policy, so are relatively sure they are safe so long as they stay on site.

“We are worried about going out into the street,” says Siti, who now regards everywhere outside the site as potential sources of infection.

This is a curious reversal of the new norm where groups of foreign workers living together at close quarters are considered to be at high risk of infection. In Singapore, foreign workers living in dormitories are the most infected group.

Zakir Md Jahangir, another worker on the site, always does two special things during Raya.

His priority is to send as much money as he can to his family back home in Bangladesh. Normally, he can manage around RM1,000.

With that accomplished, he then visits his friends in the kongsis where they are living.

But Zakir has not worked for the past two months, so he won’t be able to do either this year. And it goes without saying that there will be no shopping for new clothes.

“I’m having to borrow from my boss,” he says. “But I don’t think I can keep borrowing money from people.

“I’ll celebrate with my friends here. It won’t be much, but we’ll still make the best of it.”

This construction site started work again on Thursday.

None of the workers knows when they might be paid.

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