How far is Penang from Dhaka?

On my last trip back to Dhaka, Bangladesh, nearly a year ago, I flew in via Singapore.  At that airport, dozens of Bangladeshis came on board.  I sat in an aisle seat, and a young man with a mustache took the window.  After we had finished the evening meal, I asked him where he was coming from.  Malaysia, he said. He had flown in from Penang, where he worked in construction, setting up elevators.
    There are perhaps as many as 200,000 Bangladeshi laborers in Malaysia, just over half that number having legal contracts to work there.  Most are employed in construction.  Through our conversation I learned something of the conditions in which they lived and worked.

I will call him Aziz.  He appeared to be in his late 20s.  Asked how much schooling he had had, he said up to Alem.  I must have looked puzzled; he explained that in the madrassa system it would be the same level as a B.A.  He worked for a large Chinese-owned corporation that builds a lot of the large buildings in Malaysia.  They had built the giant Petronas towers.  Aziz had been with them for six years. 
    His brother also used to work for the same company, but he had quit and returned to Bangladesh.  After winning a lottery in Malaysia, he went home and invested the prize money in a  trucking business.  He had one truck and also owned some land.  They live in north Bengal. His brother would be coming to pick him up at the airport, hiring a taxi from their hometown.  The fare would be something like 3000 Takas ($50).  It would take about three hours for him to come, now that the bridge over the Jomuna river (the Brahmaputra) had made travel between Dhaka and north Bengal so much easier. 
    Aziz had one more brother but he died in the floods one year when he went to examine the irrigation pump and a snake bit him.  They have two sisters. 
    In Malaysia, he and his comrades live for at least six months, or more often, a year or more, at one site.  The company puts them up in hotels or rooms near the construction site.  They are provided a refrigerator and they cook their own food.  The hours are 9-6, but Aziz is grateful that there is overtime.  Sundays they get paid time and a half. 
    Yes there are accidents.  He spoke of two brothers who had been working on a site with a glass-lined building.  Up on the scaffold, the older one asked the other brother for water.  When he went to get it, he slipped and fell — from the 21st floor to the 3rd.  There had been an insurance payment.  The older one went home, never to return. 
    On his visit home, Aziz will stay for three months.  When people come on break,  they usually return for that length of time.  He knows one person who has been in Malaysia for 14 years who comes back every year for 2-3 weeks.  It costs a lot of money to make the plane trip.  He gives me a figure in Ringgit then in Taka; it comes to something like 500 dollars. 
    Aziz was there legally, so he can fly back and forth.  But he also described the lives of those who are there without legal papers.  They lived in fear of prison and canings.  The canings in Singapore are the worst; they leave marks on the back of your thighs for life.  Malaysia had just announced a deadline for those without documents to turn themselves in or they would face a year’s imprisonment and canings.  The police regularly raid the project sites.  Workers hide their comrades as best as they can.  One person who was hidden in the lift got his arms smashed.  Those without papers come in from Thailand because Bangladeshis can get tourist visas from there; he said Malaysia doesn’t offer them.  They also come through Indonesia.  Some come and go, come and go.  In the mid-90s, there were nearly 500,000 Bangladeshis in Malaysia, but the numbers went down as the once-hot economy had cooled.
    Aziz considered himself to be one of the lucky ones, but I mull over the fact that he labors 6-7 days a week, throughout the year, and in his six years of work abroad, this was his first visit home.  Malaysia is not far from Bangladesh, yet distance cannot simply be measured in the four-hour plane flight.
    At the dawn of the 21st century, tens (hundreds?) of millions of workers across the world live and work in conditions like this, and even worse.  Mostly men, but women too, on their own, in fraternities of labor, year after year, far from the touch and kindnesses of their loved ones.
    Their stories deserve to be told, chronicled, imagined, shared.  In journalism, in fiction and poetry, on film and video.  If there were 8 million stories in the Naked City, how many are there in the even more naked Globe?


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  1. Vidya

    This is something I have often thought about too – the “other” diaspora, the one that is not romanticised in books, the one that brings in unglamorous revenue. I’m glad you’ve written about this. There are workers like Aziz in the Gulf too, and other parts of S-E Asia – Bangla, Sri Lankan, Bihari, Tamil; their lives are a world apart from “expat desi” lives, and yet they’re just a heartbeat away.

  2. i was moved by what you wrote.

    i try to bring aspects of this other diaspora in my columns at — for example the human rights abuses that south asians are subjected to in the Middle East.


  3. imtiaz hussain

    Aziz is no different than Tom Joad. In that very poignant “Grapes of Wrath” passage before the final flood season, Steinbeck seemingly anticipated the ‘Aziz’ the world over within the Californian context of the 1930s when Tom spoke more like C├ęsar Chavez: there will be many more of us, for, without resistance, our suffering would continue in a cycle, without breaking new pathways. What is afoot today replicates not just the 2005 scene Mahmudur describes, but also the NAPA Valley farm factories of the 1930s, and, I might add, future modernization sites the world over.

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