If you’re afraid of heights, do not watch this video. It shows two construction workers building scaffolding at the top of a skyscraper – without any safety harnesses. Despite their precarious situation, they use flimsy, unattached bars of metal to create makeshift bridges, then walk on them to reach different sections of the scaffolding. A single misstep would no doubt spell catastrophe.
The video was published on May 18 on a Malaysian Facebook page, and has since been viewed 38 million times. The short description, in Malaysian, simply says: “for the sake of earning a living”.
Where was this filmed?
To find out where this video was filmed, we examined the video in detail. Several recognizable buildings, including the twin Petronas towers (visible at 1’40”) and the Platinum Hotel (visible at 3’18”), led us to identify the skyline: this scene was filmed in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur. By looking at details on neighbouring buildings – notably three giant ventilators a lower-lying roof – we identified the exact location of the skyscraper under construction, on Jalan Ampang Street, next to the famous Sunway Tower.
We found no information about this building online, and none of the neighbours that we contacted could tell us who owned it. However, all the Observers we spoke to in Malaysia – including a local journalist and a labour rights lawyer – said that they frequently saw construction sites where the most basic safety standards were ignored.
Malaysian journalist Enra Mahyuni said:
This video doesn’t show anything out of the ordinary. The lack of safety harnesses, the disregard for safety procedures… This is the norm in Malaysia.
Most the construction workers here are from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar. The problem is not that there are no laws to protect workers – it’s that their enforcement is lax.”
Deadly construction sites
According to official statistics from Malaysia’s department of occupational safety and health, 71 workers were killed in work accidents over the past two months, of which 32 were employed in the construction sector.
Source:The Ministry of Human Resources
Malaysia has a high rate of work accident deaths, and it’s rising. The latest statistics, from 2016, show that the fatality rate was 4.84 deaths per 100,000 workers, while in 2014 it was 4.21. The average fatality rate for neighbouring Singapore is 1.2, while the average for EU countries is about 1.5.
"Safety is not a priority for the government"
Charles Hector is a Malaysian lawyer and labour rights activist.
We need better safety laws, but the main problem is that there needs to be enforcement of standards and laws that are already in place. Safety is not a priority for the government.
The ministry of human resources doesn’t publish any statistics about workplace safety inspections. We can imagine that bribes and corruption may be involved…
No justice for undocumented workers
There are more than two million legal foreign workers in Malaysia, and according to some estimations, there about five million undocumented foreign workers as well.
These undocumented workers have no rights. If they complain, their employers will fire them. They can’t take their employers to court – if these workers ask for justice, they will be imprisoned or forced to leave the country. So the system is indirectly cooperating with abusive employers. And a lack of complaints means that the safety situation doesn’t improve.
Even if a worker dies, nothing really happens to the company – at most, they’ll face a fine. Most deaths are simply classified as “industrial accident”, a word that implies no fault for the company. They spend no money on safety because paying fines cost much less than increasing safety measures: there’s an army of workers ready to replace injured or dead workers.
It’s illegal to employ undocumented foreign workers, of course, but employers do this because it’s cheaper – they don’t have to pay any social charges. The workers benefit from this arrangement as well, because they don’t pay taxes. [Editor’s Note: According to local media, they make on average about 800 ringgit, or €170, per month. The median monthly salary in Malaysia is 3,610 ringgit, or about €770].
The situation has been worsening since 2006, when a new law was enacted allowing construction companies to use subcontractors to provide them with a workforce, instead of hiring workers directly. Therefore, even if workers decide to complain about issues at work, the construction company can say, “Who are you? We don’t even know you.”
If we want to improve the situation for foreign workers, we must first abolish this law and make companies hire their workers directly.
Back in 2010, Amnesty International published a detailed report on migrant workers in Malaysia, pointing to a host of abuses including passport withholding, wage manipulation, underage labour, forced labour and unsafe working conditions.