A voice from the factories

Penang has been one of Malaysia's major industrial centres since the 1970s. It is not strange therefore that so many Penangites, male and female, on both the island and mainland, are or have been factory workers. This is the story of  one of them.

Top: Mat heading off to work.
Above: Mat tends to his garden during the weekends. 42 . Penang Economic Monthly . Jan 2010

THANKS TO THE Bayan Lepas Free Trade Zone (FTZ), Penang has been the major industrial zone in Malaysia for over three decades. Leading high-technology brands like Intel, Agilent, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Robert Bosch, Osram and Motorola have been operating there all these years.

In these challenging times, the relocation of manufacturing facilities is just a matter of corporate decision-making based primarily on cost, logistics infrastructure and the human expertise available. The fact that Penang has been able to hold its own in such a competitive and hostile environment is ample proof that it still offers what leading manufacturers consider critical advantages that make them decide to stay. It is no small thing warding off the stiff and growing competition from China, Vietnam and other emerging economies.

The FTZ was the brainchild of the ex-Chief Minister of Penang, Tun Lim Chong Eu. It was set up primarily to provide employment opportunities for school-leavers in the 1970s. Unemployment was getting out of control, with the young leaving the island for greener pastures, especially in Europe.

Realising how dire the situation was, the Gerakan State Government at that time decided to set up the country's first free trade zone. It offered tax-free incentives to investors and succeeded beyond expectations in attracting companies from around the world to set up manufacturing facilities in Penang.

One distinctive factor that continues to attract fresh investors to the state is its human potential. Factories are physical structures but ultimately it is the people working in them day and night, 24/7, who turn the cogs of the wheel.

Employees and the work they do within the compounds of the factories tend to go unnoticed. One such person is Muhammad Ishak, who has worked all his life in the FTZ.

Muhammad (Mat for short) was born and raised in Air Itam, on the island. His father worked as an attendant in a factory and had to support seven children with his meagre salary. They stayed in a one-room government flat. His mother was a housewife.

Mat is the proud father of four children, aged 21, 17, 12 and seven. The eldest is pursuing his tertiary education while the youngest has just started schooling. Like all parents, he has high hopes that his children will attain as high an education as possible.

After completing his SPM, Mat did odd jobs before getting a position at AMD, where he stayed for 12 years. He was then hit by a retrenchment exercise and moved on to AMD Cargo (sub-contract), where he stayed three years before finding his present job. He was initially with the shipping department before being transferred to materials store. His aim now is to stay in the logistics department until he retires.

Although he has managed to get by, working at the factories has not improved his situation over the years.

Mat has been working in factories for over 30 years.

"Gaji kasar memang tak cukup untuk menyara hidup sekeluarga. Bini terpaksa mengasuh anak orang lain untuk membantu saya." (The basic salary is hardly enough to support my family. My wife has to baby-sit to help me out.)

During the recent economic downturn, overtime was hard to come by and this further compounded his problems.

But things are looking up a bit with some overtime work being available again. Mat is now able to put aside a small sum for eventualities. He is committed towards his children's educational needs, as well as some personal loans he took to build his own house.

He mentions that he had been investing in the Amanah Saham Nasional but returns from that have also shrunk. The returns from his investments are insufficient to alleviate his financial burden. Most months, he has to dig into his savings.

Just making ends meet continues to take up all his energy, and Mat does not have the luxury of dwelling on how to improve his situation. But if he were younger, and had the time and resources, he would try to get a diploma in logistics management to improve his promotion possibilities. That chance has passed him by, he feels, but he does not waste time on regrets.

Mat doing a stock check.

As the sole bread-winner in the family, the question of health is of concern. Mat has no insurance apart from one that covers his medical and accident bills should anything happen to him. He feels that should something untoward happen, then it is God's will and his family will have to find a way to cope.

Good-natured, soft-spoken and friendly, Mat is considered a hard worker by his colleagues. A typical day starts with his leaving for work at 6.15am. He works 12-hour shifts from Monday to Friday and only reaches home at 7.20pm at the end of a tough working day. He is generally too tired by then to do more than rest and sleep.

Each day, he spends a couple of ringgit on a light breakfast, and has a few drinks instead of a proper lunch. Later in the day, he takes a bite during tea break. On weekends when he does overtime he leaves the house at 7.20am and reaches home at 6pm. It is only on such days that he finds time to be with his family and meet up with neighbours and friends.

Mat with his youngest, Muhammad Asyraf.

The only free days Mat has for himself and his family are the weekends, when he's not working. He usually spends one day resting at home and the next shopping, going to the beach with his family or playing football with some old friends.

"I am quite typical of a factory worker in these parts. I work hard to make ends meet. I may not make much but it is a decent and honest living. When I retire, I want to be able to sit back and know that I have been able to give my children a good start in life."

Like all fathers, Mat hopes that all his children will obtain a university degree. What he wishes for them, whether they end up working for the government or in the private sector, is that they find a good, steady job so that they can lead an independent and fruitful life.

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