Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Third World Sweatshops

When you say the word 'sweatshop' what usually comes to mind is some obscure factory in either China or the Indian subcontinent where poorly paid overworked workers toil away under inhumane working conditions. These oppressed lot would usually be poor rural folk who don't have many other options available to them in making a living, hence their willingness to put up with such poor working conditions and a meager amount of money.

Such sweatshops however do not only exist in countries where the percentage of those who live below the poverty line is high. After much observation, I have come to the conclusion that there is much of the 'sweatshop syndrome' that exist in Malaysia's white-collar sector. ( I am sure harsh conditions do exist in the blue-collar sector too, but for the purpose of this posting, I shall stick with the white-collar sector only).

Is the term 'sweatshop' to harsh? I don't think so. Beneath the veneer of air-conditioned offices, plush carpets and comfortable swivel chairs, there is much of the 'sweatshop syndrome' in our working environment. A large majority of Malaysian employers seem to look upon their employees as 'bonded labour'. It's as if once you have signed upon the dotted line accepting their offer of employment, you have sort of effectively sold your soul to the corporation ( whether it's a huge organisation or a small set-up).

You know you work in a sweatshop if:
1. At the job interview itself you are told that you must be able to work long-hours and on weekends.

2. They quiz you on your marital state and want to know if you are planning to tie the knot soon. A newly wed would also be asked whether they plan to start a family (Female job candidates get this a lot).

3. If you are from out-of-state, they will want to know how frequently you plan make trips back to your hometown.

4. You are expected to do things that do not come under your job scope because management wants to save costs.

5. You are expected to perform super efficiently despite the fact that your computer is slow as a snail. If you bring this up, once again the cost factor will be thrown in your face.

6. You are expected to be comfortable working long hours in highly deplorable conditions such as; faulty air-conditioners that literally freeze you to death, poorly maintained toilets, colleagues who smoke in the office etc.

'Scrooge Bosses'
7. Employers who think its okay to pay you late. If the company is in its first year of operations, there is some allowance that can be made for this. But if the employer/organisation continues to be a bad pay master after the crucial first year and yet expect 100% from you, well you definitely work in a sweatshop. In fact there are some employers (usually smaller organisations), who pay late because some 'big guy' boss was not available/too busy to sign the cheque. Now this I think is highly unpardonable! These sorts are selfish in the extreme, all most all of us work because we need to put a roof over our heads, food on the table and pay bills which have a DUE date. So by paying us late, such selfish employers are effectively making us look bad in the eyes of our creditors. But of course details like this don't matter to them, for in their eyes, we are but worker ants.

In the pursuit to cut costs and save a few precious dimes, some organisations have also been known to shift operations to pay cheaper rent. Unfortunately paying cheaper rent also means you get a real crapped up work location like one where undesirable characters lurk. Which means you gotta watch your purse when you step out of the office, or constantly worry that your car might be broken into and yeah a lot worse could happen too.....especially if you work late and have to leave the office alone. But management gets to cut their precious costs so you gotta put up with it!

8. Any human that performs a function that takes up a substantial portion of mental and physical effort will need a period of rest. In an office we call this "taking a break" usually an hour during lunch. But a fair number of Malaysian employers seem to see this as something that employees can do without. In the last office that I worked at, my then boss very proudly told me during my first day of work that most of his staff seldom took lunch breaks and preferred to eat at their desks. Later of course, I found out the real reason for this. He had a penchant for calling meetings during lunch hour because apparently that was the only time he would be free.

In another case, my brother once had a boss who cut down lunch hour to 30 minutes. He felt it was perfectly okay for his staff to run down to the cafeteria, gobble down their food and rush back to work. His reason was that he wanted to increase productivity. He even had lunch catered every Friday so that staff would eat in the office instead of going out for lunch. Bosses like these don't seem to get the concept. Lunch break is not just about eating, it's about taking a break from your immediate working environment. To chill out for a bit and recharge your batteries, so you are able to return to work somewhat energised. If you are just stuck at your desk the whole freaking day, even if they order you a sumptuous meal, it is not called taking a break. Anybody who works needs a break, it's as simple as that.

'Allergic to the L word'
9. The reason why we are given a leave allocation is so not all of our life will revolve around work. And also besides work, there are a heck of a lot of other things that go on in our lives, that we sometimes have to take time off to attend to. Oh but some employers can be plain anal when it comes to the 'L' word. Some organisations will conveniently put a freeze on leave-taking as and when they like, leaving a lot of staff wondering when exactly they can go on leave, while some others will say things like "oh but who will do this and that when you go on leave......". If they finally agree to let you take a few precious days off, one of the conditions would be that you should constantly be reachable via mobile and email. So you see, once in a sweatshop, you cannot leave it for long.

'Office = Home'
10. If yours is a day job, chances are it would be from 9am to 5pm/10am to 6pm. However almost all of us know that is just the 'official timing'. Almost nobody leaves the office at 5pm or 6m, excluding those who work in the civil service or the clerical staff. Even if we are not bogged down with work, most of us will hang around and leave at 7pm at the very least. To constantly leave the office on the dot is frowned upon even if you are quite done for the day. In Malaysian working life, to leave the office early is a rarity. It's an unwritten rule that everyone should hang around for an extra hour or two. Then of course there are the ones for who working late everyday is the norm. These poor souls get to see the sunrise but never get to see it set.

In fact some Malaysian bosses get a sense of perverse pleasure out of scheduling meetings and discussions at 5pm and 6pm which can go on for hours. Doubly annoying it is when you have made plans to watch a movie or have dinner with friends. There have been many a time when I had to cancel such outings at the eleventh hour due to the fact that I had a boss who loved the sound of his own voice.

'They think you live only to serve them'
11. Besides it being an economic necessity that we do so, there are many other reasons why people take up the jobs that they do. Some do it because they would like to acquire a specific skill set that would come in handy say when they set up their own business for instance, while others might work at a particular job because the hours are conducive in enabling them to attend night classes for a masters programme. At the end of the day, most of us seek to better ourselves as individuals and improve our skills and marketability.

Unfortunately there are many employers who shy away from hiring people who are pursuing some form of study and worse still frown upon staff who do so. What they want is employees who will give 100% to their jobs while sacrificing any desire to better themselves. Now if these employers were good enough to recognise the merit of hardworking staff and advance them within the organisation, it would not be so bad, uh but in most cases they are happy for you to remain where you are, doing what you do best, which is serving them unconditionally.

In fact a friend of mine had the misfortune of twice being offered a better position at another department but was unable to take up the offer because his immediate superior went to top management and made a big fuss about other departments trying to pinch his staff, saying he could not let anybody leave the department because he was so shorthanded. Now imagine the frustration of a truly talented worker whose is held back from taking such an opportunity on the whim of a very selfish boss.

All in all, Malaysian bosses need to wizen up to the fact that people are out there in the job market to earn a living and acquire some valuable skills that will serve them well in the future, not sell their souls. The age of slavery is long gone and so is the culture of utter subservience to one organisation. If you do not treat your employees well, they will just up and leave.

Sometimes just browsing the recruitment section of the newspapers can make one shudder, almost every job advertisement will say that you must be willing to work long hours and under pressure. Fair enough that there are some jobs that will entail long working hours such as advertising for instance. But these days it seems to be the norm that almost everybody must be prepared to bring sleeping-bags to the office. If we go on at this rate, we are gonna be competing with Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan where people work until 12 midnight and sometimes when they can't take it anymore, they throw themselves off the train on the way home from work!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Malaysian Cabbies: Part 2

Dishonest, rude and criminal Malaysian taxi drivers now have a new god. Said god being no another than Minister in Prime Minister's Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz. Yup that bright spark of the BN government actually came out in support of a fare hike for cab drivers. Under the new ruling, starting fares for taxis would increase from RM2 to RM3 for the first kilometre. And what made the bitter pill even harder to swallow was his moronic statement that those who take cabs are actually financially sound! now how would he know that? did he hire a research firm to conduct an in-depth study on the income levels of those who commute by cabs, before the new ruling was put in place?? Obviously not I reckon! which explains why he's been a minister without a ministry of his own for so.....long.....hmmm.

Why we take cabs
I say this on behalf of all other frequent cab commuters out there. Although we would love to all together avoid having to contend with rude cabbies, we have no choice but to do so because PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION IN THIS COUNTRY SUCKS!! Can you hear that Nazri? so stop being in denial and say stupid things like "take the bus", the buses in this country don't come on time. If it did, there would be another tsunami or worse still an earthquake.

Nazri thy name is stupidity
Ok, ok, so Nazri is in denial about the sad state of public transportation in this country, or perhaps he's been chauffeured around for so....long (perks of being a minister, even a stupid one) that he "tak sedar" how bad it is for us common folk. But did he really, really have to come out and say: " Or they can ask their husbands, wives, relatives or friends to fetch them." I am quite sure that no minister in a first world country would have been allowed to get away with a statement like that. They would have had to hold a slew of press conferences later to explain their gaffe. But mind you this is no gaffe for Nazri, the man probably thinks it's a brilliant idea to suggest that all of us become less independent and depend on our families and friends to ferry us around. I am considering making a recommendation to Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka to add another name for "bodoh" in the Malay dictionary, yup you guessed it, its Nazri of course! Indeed he is the Pak Pandir of modern Malaysia. Sigh..

Uniquely Malaysian
Only in this country can the government increase the fair for public transportation without putting in place measures to improve the standard of service. Only in this country can a cab driver be charged for a brutal rape and be let out on a measly amount of bail and not have his taxi licence revoked. Why? because the judge bought the argument of the defence counsel that the alleged rapist needed to earn a living to support his family. So a man who might be a very dangerous criminal still gets to go around picking up passengers.

So in short our government is willing to bow to the demands of transport associations without first demanding that they ensure quality service from the transport companies that operate under them. And we the rakyat shall continue to be literally taken for a ride by errant cab drivers.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Malaysian Cabbies: Part 1

As someone who depends on public transportation to get around, I have taken my fair share of cabs. And let me tell you that getting into a cab in this country and particularly in KL as this is where most of my experiences have occurred, is sort of a gamble because you literally don't know what you're getting into. Ok let me elaborate, after a decade of hopping in and out of cabs, I have narrowed the 9 different types of cab drivers one might encounter when taking a cab. To be fair to the nice cabbies who are out there to make an honest living, I shall start of with the positive stereotypes first.

1. 'The nice uncle'
Usually Malay or Chinese who are very fatherly (sometimes they speak of their kids, but since they are nice I don't quite mind the chatter). Even if they are not familiar with the place you want to go to, they will make a genuine effort to find it without loosing their temper and being rude or charging extra fair. As you get off they say 'thank you' and urge you to take care of yourself as KL is such a dangerous place.

2. 'The professional'
Either young adults or those in their forties who speak good English and are polite. These people sometimes have day jobs or have quit some other white-collar occupation to drive cabs. They don't engage you in conversation except to ask details on how to get to your destination and they do not overcharge you.

3. 'The non-stop talker'
Aiyooh these types though harmless enough are a veritable pain in the butt! On and on they would go about some issue they are obviously dissatisfied with. Usually its about politics, how they hate some ministers, how unfair seat allocations is in local universities, sometimes its about passengers they have taken. Although I am no talker myself, I don't mind cab drivers airing their grouses somewhat, but seriously when you go on and one ranting non-stop throughout the whole journey, it literally makes me want to jump out of the window! These lot on the whole are either super disgruntled or total arm-chair critics lah.

4. 'The racist/cultural idiot'
What amazes me is that these type of cabbies are actually oblivious to the fact that they are being racist, seeing it instead as being friendly. In one incident in particular that occured in Johor Baharu several years ago, a Chinese cabbie greeted me as Meenachi as soon as I got into his cab, It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him that Meenachi was the name of a Hindu goddess and not a name that you just called any Indian girl when you do not know her real name. But well I decided to let it pass. But the fellow did not stop there, he started to talk to me in Malay and kept imitating how Indians talk. He also kept shaking his head like a broken doll and injecting what he thought was Tamil words into the conversation. I decided that enough was enough and asked why he was shaking his head in that manner because it looked quite ridiculous. Appearing utterly baffled by the fact that I was pissed off, he said:"Uh tapi orang India selalu cakap macam ini apa....uh jangan marah adik." Well at this point I was beyond pissed off, so gave him a piece of my mind. In short I told him that he was very, very rude to speak to a passenger in that manner and that his whole conduct reeked of racism despite his apparent friendliness. He kept apologising profusely but well the damage had already been done.

5. 'The gatal one'
These types will usually tell you how pretty you are, will want to know if you're of mixed blood, how old you are, are you married or have a boyfriend, what you would look for in a boyfriend or future life partner. Once on a workday morning a couple of years ago when I was a court reporter, I hailed a cab to go to the Bangsar LRT, as I was getting off, the cabby asked me where I was off to, I said the courts, and he was like: "Pakai baju sexy macam ini nak pergi mahkamah ke? jangan bohonglah.." What a jerk right? what gives a cab driver the right to comment on a passenger's attire? is this attitude unique to Malaysian cab drivers or perhaps its just the sort of attitude you get in the third world. It's the divine right of male cab drivers to hit on their female passengers, it's perfectly okay, nothing to make a huff about. Because if you want to report people like this, who do you go to? the cab companies? considering the way these companies are run, some of them even close shop overnight, nobody is going to do anything about this kind of behaviour. So even now as I write, these gatal cabbies are getting away with this unprofessional attitude. What a cool job man, you get to drive a cab and hit on your female passengers!

6. 'The patronising uncle'
All that I have encountered thus far are Indian. In once incident the cabby was driving past a temple, he made a gesture of prayer and then asked me If I was Indian to which I said yes, then he wanted to know why I did not put up my hands and pray when passing the temple. When I replied that there really was no reason at all why I did not do it, and I did not see why I should, Mr preachy uncle went on and on about how it was the duty of every Indian to put up their hands and salute god when passing a temple. In another incident that happened to my sister, the old Indian uncle cab driver gave her a lecture about not wearing a pottu (All the way from Bangsar to Puchong he rattled on about the pottu issue). How proffesional is that? try doing that while driving a cab in some first world country and you will so be out of a job.

7. 'Mr Nosey'
He thinks passengers are obliged to tell him their life stories. He will want to know how old you are, where you are from, where do you work, where you studied, how many siblings do you have, how old are your parents, do they work and on and on throughout the whole bloody journey. Truly our Malaysian cabbies are a very kepoh lot.

8. 'The criminals'
Have not met them, for if I have, I might not be sitting here in one piece writing this post. Just gives me the creeps thinking about it! But there are so many of them out there that it makes me wonder what kind of enforcement do we have to prevent people like this from preying on unsuspecting victims who depend on public transportation to get from point A to B. These types rape or rob or do both. Mostly they rape and might rob as an after thought. Literally every year in this country from 4 to 5 years back, we have had a case of a serial cab rapist. All these cases have been in KL to date. And these are only the cases that have been reported. Considering it is so easy to get a cab licence and go around raping women, there are definitely many more serial cab rapists out there. Despite the severe sentences meted out by the courts on convicted cab rapists, new cases continue to surface. Which points to the fact that the harsh sentences meted out have not served as a deterrent. Basically its this, if you are a serial rapists sort, the best way to prey on as many women as possible it to drive a cab. Why? because enforcement is so, so poor.

9. 'The meter evaders'
They don't get the concept of a taxi meter. Some will say their meter is spoilt and charge you a much higher amount than necessary. The other sort will insist on some exorbitant amount like double or triple the fare to go to a certain place even before you get into the cab. Sometimes when people are desperate enough they will just agree and pay the exorbitant amount. Its daylight robbery really. These sort of cab drivers usually work in groups, and can be found in certain spots like at the Kelana LRT station, outside Sunway Pyramid and Puduraya to name a few. Believe it or not the other day, a cab driver at Puduraya asked me for a fare of RM50 to go to Kelana Jaya! As I said, these sort of cabbies work in groups and usually hang out at a particular area, they get very hostile if another cab driver comes to their turf to pick up passengers and use the meter. They will shout at him and sometimes threatens to take out a parang or iron rod from their booth! What are the authorities doing? once again its poor enforcement to the fore.

Those of us who take cabs are not rich, we are just ordinary folk going out there to make a living. If indeed we were rich we would be going about in chauffeur driven cars, not waiting in the sweltering heat to hail cabs, taking a chance and putting our lives at risk. It's a real shame that our government has such a "tidak apa" attitude towards this issue. Even the blogs and articles in foreign publications have unanimously said it: Our cabbies are one of the worst in the world. It's a national shame for a country that prides itself on being a tourist haven.