THERE IS A long-held perception that Penangites are averse to 3D (dirty, dangerous and difficult) employments. This opinion was put to the test when in 2011, current Bukit Mertajam Member of Parliament and former councillor of the Majlis Perbandaran Seberang Perai (MPSP) Steven Sim tackled the issue of waste management on mainland Penang.
Buoyed by the Island’s success story following George Town’s recognition as Asia’s 8th most liveable city in 2010 by ECA International, Sim embarked on a formal study, facilitated by Penang Institute. Two key findings were made: the first showed that only 20% of Grade H11 workers employed by MPSP were locals; the overwhelming majority were foreign contract workers. It was also discovered that the Council still maintained pre-existing contracts with over 100 waste management companies.
Seberang Perai is geographically the largest municipality in West Malaysia and the previous administration had put for bidding a sum of contracts that were taken up by companies, many of which were formed by just a handful of parent companies to secure a larger number of contracts. Some of these registered companies had a set of workers who were rotated in areas that they were contracted to cover, and foreign workers were hired to cut costs. This led to severe short-handedness and explained why the waste management system was thus far inefficiently handled.
Current Bukit Mertajam Member of Parliament and former councillor of the Majlis Perbandaran Seberang Perai Steven Sim.
The second key finding was that locals were the lowest paid workers in the system; they were earning a mere RM500-RM700 as monthly wage. “Elderly, male locals were typically employed to be drivers for garbage trucks since foreign workers were unable to secure licenses in Malaysia. But despite receiving higher pay, these foreign workers were also exploited for their labour; agents usually deducted a portion of their wages,” explains Sim.
With the study in hand, Sim tabled a working proposal to the Council to renegotiate the terms of contract with the companies. These included the implementation of a 70% Malaysian Workers Quota and an increase of the floor wage to RM900-RM1,000. Other councillors, however, were not in favour of the change, citing as reasons the locals’ disinterest in menial employment and the anticipated financial struggles of waste management companies should the proposed amendments be adopted.
“It was in then-Mayor Dato’ Seri Maimunah Mohd Shariff (who is now the executive director of UN-Habitat) that I found support,” says Sim. Chief minister Chow Kon Yeow, then a state executive councillor for Local Government, also backed his idea. “He was willing to take the risk despite being under a lot of pressure; there was no assurance that a new policy would be successful.”
The tabled proposal was re-tweaked, this time by Maimunah herself, who suggested a 40% takeback of tendered contracts for reassigning to in-house management instead. This would give MPSP hiring and firing power, and the ability to ensure compliance among workers.
Introducing Wira Orange
Under this new policy, over 1,000 positions were advertised exclusively for Malaysians in 2012, with a starting salary of RM1,000 and a 3D allowance of RM1,500 to boot. The response was overwhelming; 5,000 applicants applied for the job, proving that locals are willing to work for reasonable pay. What was even more striking was an obvious shift in demography; a huge number of young people applied for the positions! As far as government interventions go, the initiative was an encouraging success.
But almost immediately obstacles were identified. Equipment and machinery had to be acquired. A loan was obtained from the state government to purchase garbage trucks, grass cutters, etc. There was also a shift in managerial dynamics. The paths of communication were shortened; supervisors now oversaw teams of 50-100 newly minted Wira Orange MPSP workers, instead of communicating directly with a handful of contractors. Staff leadership and management training also enabled supervisors to become better managers.
Cleanliness in Seberang Perai improved tremendously and led MPSP to reclaim the remaining 60% of contracts for complete in-house management. The whole process saw over 3,000 local hires, with each guaranteed a pay of RM1,500. The positive spill-over effect was noticeable; factories that were previously only paying their operators a wage of RM1,200 increased the starting salary as many were leaving the industry to join the Council.
A review of the policy showed how the heightened cleanliness of Seberang Perai boosted the social and local economy with jobs; MPSP also received high ratings from its residents. On September 16, 2019, Seberang Perai was officially awarded city status and the municipal council was renamed Majlis Bandaraya Seberang Perai (MBSP).
Carrying the Torch
MBSP’s mayor Dato' Sr Hj Rozali b. Hj Mohamud. Photo: MBSP
Since the policy’s implementation a decade ago, a systematic waste management system has been established to facilitate swift house-to- house waste collection, with landfill facilities, a transfer station, and eight vehicle depots throughout the city. “Door-to-door rubbish collections have increased from twice to five times weekly; and are categorised as domestic waste, green and bulk waste, and recyclable waste. Daily collections are also conducted for communal bins placed at wet markets, food courts and residential high-rise buildings,” says MBSP’s mayor Dato’ Sr Hj Rozali b. Hj Mohamud.
Residents’ concerns over exhausted landfills have also spurred the Council’s launching of the Seberang Perai Climate Action Strategy (January 2, 2020) and the Circular Economy Road Map (September 19, 2020), along with the signing of MOUs with public universities in promoting the use of composted waste as fertiliser. Vocational training programmes in collaboration with Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris also served to broaden and enhance the knowledge of Wira Orange workers on urban farming, hydroponics and composting.
Photo: MBSP's Facebook.
Today, these workers earn a basic salary above the minimum wage of RM1,218, excluding the various allowances provided by the state government. They are also entitled to accident and disability compensations by SOCSO and in the event of death, MBSP is committed to compensate the deceased’s family with RM3,000. Health and panel clinic care coverage is also offered to H11 workers and their families, parents included, as is access to affordable housing through the Housing Democracy programme and MBSP’s Food Bank Programme which provides its workers with monthly dry food packages.
Rozali stresses that cities do not need expensive technology to manage their waste. Instead, what city councils require is the participation of their residents in managing consumption, responsibly producing waste and being mindful of how they discard them. In Seberang Perai specifically, community engagement is key in MBSP’s outreach to educate and support sustainable waste management in the city.
Marcus Dip Silas is an interculturalist and foodie with an interest in international relations and community development. He is currently writing a book on tech entrepreneurs in Penang.