Art tackles views of migrant workers
By Hariati Azizan,The Star/Asia News Network
December 30, 2013, 12:01 am TWN
The Migration Works campaign aims to show young Malaysians that they share more with migrant workers than they think.
Freelance photographer Sam Ruslan never bothered to really look at the foreign faces serving him coffee, until he found himself behind the coffee bar.
“Working closely with foreign workers as a barista made me see them in another light,” he shares. “I was shy and awkward, but they were so friendly and helpful. We ate together, joked and laughed. I started to see them as real people, like you and I.”
His other discovery opened his eyes wider.
“While it is true that many work here to earn money, it's not just to survive. They want better lives too for their families and children,” said Sam.
“For one of my Filipino colleagues, Ben, barista work is actually his dream. He loves coffee and he is good at what he does. Migrant workers are like us, they have hopes and dreams too.”
Inspired by Ben, Sam started taking portraits of his migrant co-workers, two of which he exhibited at a recent photo exhibition organized by the International Labour Organization (ILO) to commemorate International Migrants Day.
Anne Muhammad, another young photographer invited to participate in the exhibition at MAP @ Publika, Solaris Dutamas, said she has also gained a better understanding of migrant workers the closer she tried to get to them.
To her surprise, she found many shared similarities, which drew the fresh graduate to capture more photos of their lives.
“It started just as a job assignment when I was asked by Tempo Jakarta to take photos of Indonesian migrant workers. But in my search, I got to know the workers and their experiences, how they miss their families and homes,” she said.
Anne was heartened that an Indonesian family even invited her into their home, giving her the chance to get to know the whole family. The experience opened her to a new view of the migrant worker community.
“I was touched by their common concerns and feelings, and I now find the negative attitudes of the average Malaysian towards migrant workers very distressing.”
The exhibition is one of many programs planned by ILO in its Migration Works campaign to promote a positive attitude toward migrant workers in Malaysia.
Launched in Malaysia in December last year, Migration Works is part of ILO's five-year Greater Mekong Sub-Region Tripartite Action to Protect Migrant Workers from Labor Exploitation (GMS Triangle) project. It was initiated after ILO's study on public perception of migration in Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand indicated that dangerous myths and negative stereotypes are deeply entrenched in public attitude toward foreign workers.
In Malaysia, the study found that only 38 percent of respondents felt migrants make a net contribution to the economy. While the labor laws provide equal protection, 73 percent of respondents felt that authorized migrant workers cannot expect the same wages and working conditions as their local counterparts. This is reflected on the ground, where many migrant workers receive low pay and are mistreated at work.
Under the GMS Triangle project, ILO has been working with the authorities, employers and other stakeholders to strengthen the formulation and implementation of labor recruitment and labor protection policies and practices in Malaysia. As the survey shows, however, raising people's awareness on the contributions and positive roles of migrant workers is also important.
As the advocacy creed goes, nothing is effective in changing a mindset than starting with the young.
The ultimate aim of Migration Works is to get the young people on board the campaign to recognize the important role migrant workers play in society and even initiate their own movement on this issue.