Buying, selling may be key to Asian migrants’ unity
By Jeremaiah M. Opiniano
The following article was part of OFWJC's special publication 'Move.' The magazine was given to all delegates of GFMD Philippines.
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA—THE Kota Raya shopping mall here on Sundays reflects that Asian migrant workers understand each other if their heads of state allow the market as a platform for communication.
Here, words melding with nods and a thumbs-up sign are easily understood as agreement on a certain price for hand-woven silk or hand-sewn leather sandals.
Two palms up and shoulders raised mean the seller –a Malaysian, Indonesian, or Filipino– can no longer lower the price of his product.
And the English is abrupt and staccato: “Two for a hundred,” “What price you want?,” and “Hey!”.
Foreign workers in t-shirts and jeans, sarong, and batik-print short sleeves, weave up and down the four-storey mall. For a day, at least, the 30-year-old building’s walls protect them from what some of them feel as discrimination from Malaysian employers.
Nepalese workers break out in laughter on one side; Filipinos do soon on the third floor. Chirpy Indonesian conversation streams across the second floor while the ear picks up here and there a mix of several Asian languages.
Through purchases and friendly encounters with compatriots, Kota Raya is where Filipinos manage the stresses of daily labor at least once a week in Kuala Lumpur.
When we go back to their household and office workplaces, we have to contend with how lowly Malaysians look at us, a foreign worker explains on the freedom inside the mall.
Kota Raya is one tacit face of overseas migration in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Asean groups two labor-sending countries (the Philippines and Indonesia), four labor-receiving countries (Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand), and four other countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam).
Especially on Sundays, the Malaysian-owned mall bustles with buying and selling and exchanges between and among nationals of most of the 10 Asean-member countries and from other Asian countries like Nepal.
Kota Raya, located at Kuala Lumpur’s Jalan Silang and Jalan Cheng Lock junctions, is renowned as the beehive of foreign workers.
The mall’s 30- and 60-square meter shops glitter with products imported from the countries of these workers.
Indonesian movies in digital video disk formats are displayed prominently as well as remittance signs of the IME Impex, which targets Nepalese workers.
The offices of American money transfer business Western Union, however, dominate the ground floor.
ON the third floor is the Bayanihang Pinoy (Filipino unity), a 60-sqm shop selling products from the Philippines.
Garlic-flavored junk food, flavoring mixes for soups, vinegar and soy sauce, tissue paper, and packed noodles are arranged in a row inside a wood-and-glass cabinet.
“This place is really like this –jampacked– on Sundays,” stall owner Pilar De la Cruz-Sangaran said a bit apologetically.
Sangaran’s shop, which she continued even after the demise of her Malaysian husband, doubles as an office of a migrant savings group she started leading since 2002.
Her shop and their group called Samahang Impok Bayan (literally People’s Savings Group) are examples of how property rights factor in the formal mobility of foreign labor and capital.
For one, foreigners can only open a business if a Malaysian is the lead investor.
For another, Sangaran said they had to register their group with their official representative institution, in this case, the Philippine embassy.
“The Malaysian government cannot [and doesn’t] allow foreigners to register cooperatives or savings groups. It is difficult to institute such a savings scheme for us here, given how the host country looks at foreigners like Filipinos.”
Sangaran’s passionate vilification comes from her belief that foreign workers should keep money for themselves and avoid sending everything to their families in the home country.
“Doing so is also for our and our family’s future when we do decide to go home for good.”
Having the savings group office side-by-side her business, however, makes it difficult for Sangaran because the SIB advocates “forced saving”.
Domestic workers come here and give their money to Sangaran who records the deposit in white passbooks carrying the SIB seal.
As of May this year, SIB has a total deposit of 84,235.09 Malaysian ringgit from 400 members.
This fund is reserved for hospitalization and mortuary assistance and emergency loans for migrant Filipino workers in dire financial need.
Sangaran admits the savings consciousness is still slow-going among migrant workers who feel responsible for sending money to their loved ones.
Likewise, having such savings structure inside the Kota Raya shopping complex doesn’t appear helpful at all.
Kota Raya, to note, was cited by the Asian Development Bank as having a “well-entrenched remittance system.”
Hence, the shopping mall will remain the beehive of foreigners like Filipinos, for as long as Malaysia allows the entry of foreign labor.
THE Asean is progressing over the years to become an economic force.
Data from the International Monetary Fund shows that Asean’s trade value in 2006 was worth $1.458 trillion, behind the $9.165 trillion of the European Union and the $4.960 trillion of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Thus, developed Asean countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Brunei Darussalam have attracted, and continue to attract, foreign workers.
It will thus be interesting to find out how an evolving Asean will deal with labor migration, said Filipino scholar Filomeno Aguilar of the Ateneo de Manila University.
Aguilar, a former professor at the National University of Singapore, points to one “positive sign” to Asean’s inter-governmental look at labor mobility – the 2006 Asean Declaration on Migrant Workers.
The Philippine government, which instigated the signing of that 2006 declaration, calls it a “good example” of a regional approach to deal with overseas migration.
But Asean member-countries have varied interests, cultures, and political systems, and Aguilar thinks Asean countries will deal with labor migration or other Asean issues “in different ways and means”.
“Remember,” Aguilar added, “Asean states have their own forms of individuality” –and many times, the tenor of handling issues in Asean “is non-interference”.
Malaysia did not sign that declaration and continues to deal with illegal Indonesian and Filipino workers through deportation.
A consul at the Philippine embassy in Kuala Lumpur said when pressed for more rational treatment of such workers, “Malaysian immigration officials will simply tell us they welcome foreigners ‘but these should not overstay.’”
Malaysia’s deportation of these overstaying foreign workers, however, has spawned a support network that is under the government’s radar, according to Sangaran.
“We survive through friends and support groups.”
Likewise, Malaysia’s immigration control also forces migrant workers to create ingenious methods as what some from South Asia reportedly do, disguising themselves as students and taking on blue-collar jobs without work permits.
Philippine government officials, hence, are banking on the 2006 declaration as the silver bullet to solve irregular migration problems.
Aguilar believes other structures of unity can be tapped to support such goal.
“There are also various forms of ethnic alliances and formations in Asean. Inter-ethnic relationship also has a historical precedent, and is deeply rooted.”
Such dynamism is currently enjoyed in Kota Raya, where migrant workers shop happily every Sunday.
OFW Journalism Consortium, with support from the Royal Netherlands Embassy in the Philippines