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KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 19 ― While the government has rolled out several aid packages over the past year to help Malaysians weather the economic devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, there are those who seem to have been either forgotten or ignored.
These are the sex workers, transgenders and migrants who are often overlooked, shunned, and forced to live in dehumanising conditions.
Vin, 27, is a trans man who lost his job at Fuji Xerox at the start of the pandemic and has been struggling for money since.
He has had to rely on SEED Malaysia, a non-governmental organisation which offers support to marginalised communities including trans people and those living with HIV/AIDS, for food and work.
To make matters worse, Vin misses the emotional support of his parents who died in an accident a couple years back.
Vin has also not been able to get his father’s EPF and Socso money.
“When I go to these offices, I get discriminated against all the time. When they interview me, they ask me why I am a trans person, they say ‘why are you like this, how are you going to have sex, why do you wanna be a guy?’
“They tell me if I’m going to be like this no one will help me. I just ignore all of it though it hurts me deeply. All I want is for them to do the right thing and grant me the money my parents were owed.
“It’s been two years and whenever I go to the EPF office on Jalan Raja Laut they make me wait.
“They will say come back in a month, then two… this has been going on and on. I got some of the government aid but it isn’t enough. I am relying on my friends and my girlfriend to pay for my bike expenses, rent, phone and other things,” Vin explained.
Vin said he hoped the government can find more jobs for people like him. He used to earn RM1.800 in his previous job but after his parents died he had to borrow RM2,000 from a loan shark as he was desperate. He could not get a bank loan as no bank was willing to give him one.
After struggling to repay the loan shark (with interest, the amount had ballooned to RM2,750), Vin took out RM3,000 from his EPF account to pay off the debt.
“I also need RM320 a month for testosterone to keep my hormones in check and that has been a struggle. If I do not take it, my periods will come back,” he added.
Recently, Vin became a rider for food delivery service Foodpanda so hopefully he will manage for a while.
Then there are the many informal workers ― identified as individuals with casual work arrangements or no fixed salary who are not recognised by social protection agencies and do not enjoy the protections offered by formal sector employment ― who lost their jobs because of the pandemic.
Wong Chee Cheong, 61, is a pasar malam vendor selling electrical gadgets. The movement control orders (MCO) ― last year and the current one ― disrupted business and Wong has been finding it hard to make a living.
On top of that, he is visually impaired and can barely see. When we met him at SEED’s office, he looked like he had been wearing the same clothes for the past month.
He said he has been living in a friend’s shophouse as he has had no steady income for the past year.
Despite having 12 siblings, Wong is alone. He explained that they all despise him for being useless and handicapped so he has been fending for himself his whole life.
“I don’t know how much money I have in my bank left. I korek-korek lah every month see what’s left in there. For food I go every day to the various NGOs or places that are offering free food,” said Wong, adding that friends will alert him where there are free giveaways.
“I take one pack of food and it will last me the whole day as I will eat a little at a time.”
Even though the government recently announced they will allow night markets to operate, Wong cannot afford the RM250 permit.
“All the bank money has been used to pay for storage of my inventory, RM150 per month, and I have to continue to pay if not they will throw my things out.
“I’ve used up all the government aid money to pay for that rent. The night market I operate at, Lorong Haji Taib, is not due to open yet,” he explained.
Wong said he doesn’t like to ask people for help but he does wish the government could offer people like him a bit more money to survive while waiting for things to get better.
Social worker Fatimah Abdullah, 54, knows exactly what Wong means. She works with women in the sex industry.
Fatimah has been advocating to decriminalise the sex industry for more than two decades and said the current situation has made some of the sex workers resort to begging.
She said most of the girls would not have had access to any government aid and they definitely do not have any EPF savings. Some do not even have an IC (identification card).
In August last year Fatimah said the industry reopened with brothels adhering to the strict SOPs with temperature checks and hygienic practices increased.
“Now since the cases are going up, things are getting worse. The girls are resorting to begging and some with kids are being taken advantage of by their family members.
“I just spoke to a few of them recently and one of them said her brother and father-in-law asked her for sex when she begged them for money to feed the kids.
“The girls in the brothels may have regulars but the street girls do not. So they put themselves in dangerous positions to try to earn just a little bit of cash,” said Fatimah.
She explained that a sex worker can earn RM30 per person but after paying for the room, food and other items they will make only RM10 per session.
“Some girls have been ambushed when visiting clients. Example, when the girl gets there there are three men in the room. At that point she can’t escape and violence happens,” said Fatimah wearily.
Fatimah suggests that City Hall or government authorities give sex workers a place to stay at the people’s housing project (PPR) low cost flats.
“I was asked by many girls who are really suffering now if they could get a room at the government housing for the time being. Many of them have been begging City Hall for a long time and have written to them many times but they keep asking for documentation like bank slips or pay slips which they cannot provide.
“All they want is a room that they can afford to pay and to have a roof over their heads or very soon they will be living on the streets,” she said.
Another person affected by the pandemic is Ben Alim Baron. A trans woman and street singer who lost her eyesight at the age of seven, she used to work the late shift from 6pm onwards till the wee hours of the morning around Kuala Lumpur.
She was apprehensive to talk to Malay Mail at first but warmed up after a while. Ben said she had zero income for three months last year due to the lockdown and survived on free food handed out by NGOs. She used to earn between RM200-300 per week singing on the streets.
Although disabled, she is alone after her mother died last year. Her father was a former driver for government agency Bernas who died years ago. This makes her eligible to collect his pension.
However like Vin, she has had many issues with the authorities and this has been made worse now due to the pandemic.
“The staff at JPA (Public Service Department) are making life difficult for me. I applied, sent the forms in but they replied with, it failed.
“They told me I do not have the doctor’s certification when I was seven to prove I’m blind before I turned 21. So I found the letter stating I underwent an operation in 1979 when I was seven, sent in the cover letter attached with it but till now nothing. A friend of mine in a similar situation has been waiting for 10 years.
“Not only that, I just got out of a bad relationship with an Englishman after three years and he is now in jail for overstaying in Malaysia.
“It’s depressing and stressful. All I want is to be able to pay the house rent which is at RM1,000 and eventually I want to buy my house.
“Meanwhile I will still sing on the streets despite the pandemic. When I sing I release my stress. It makes me feel good when I can meet my friends as well.”
Ben said when her boyfriend is released she will pay for his flight back to the United Kingdom as the British embassy told her they cannot help him.
“So I just pay lah,” said Ben.
Some, like Laeticia Raveena, decided to change course entirely. She is a transexual showgirl who was based in Thailand where there are lots of job opportunities for transsexuals due to the booming tourism industry.
Since the pandemic hit, the entire industry has been on hiatus. In Thailand, a showgirl can earn up to RM5,000 a month and some took an 18 per cent pay cut but are still getting a wage every month.
“In Malaysia, it’s all part time basis and the best season is now during Chinese New Year and the year-end Christmas and New Year celebrations.
“Girls also earn a side income with private shows which have all been cancelled now. They also do not have an organisation or union to fight for them,” Laeticia told Malay Mail.
“Some of them managed to get the BSH (Bantuan Sara Hidup) money but not all applicants are successful. Most of the showgirls are taking care of their families, some have stepkids, some have brothers and sisters still in school.”
As pubs and nightclubs are not allowed to open and restaurants have limited dining, Laeticia said most of her colleagues have resorted to selling nasi lemak or opening food stalls but many lack the capital to start their own business and they can’t get a loan.
Even once businesses reopen there are doubts that showgirls will be booked as patrons may not want to linger around for too long at their favourite drinking spots.
“They have to find alternative means to source income. In my case, I learnt French pastry and am baking cakes and selling them online.
“I have been advising the girls to do something similar because people are always willing to spend on food,” said Laeticia.
Then there is Norsharil Izwan, 33, a father of two kids, eight and six, who is a divorcee and jobless.
He was laid off from his air-conditioning repairman job last year and relied on SEED for food for his kids. He lives in an apartment with nine others; he rents a room for the three of them.
Norsharil said he wished the government would offer people like him a lump sum of money with the iSinar package.
“At the moment people who want to start a business can’t do so due to a lack of savings and difficulty in getting a loan.
“The EPF money they said can take RM5,000 first then another RM5,000 later. Why not give it as a lump sum then we can do business?” Norsharil asked.
“Not only that, there are government projects during the MCO but these contracts went to certain companies only. We didn’t get any.
“I would love to have a job again and I hope the government can help,” he added.
But it is not all doom and gloom. Like Laeticia, Ferdinand who is an Indonesian migrant worker living in Malaysia for the past 11 years said there is always a silver lining and hope if you are willing to work hard.
A former lecturer at Universitas Indonesia teaching IT, Ferdinand has a passion for cooking and when he was overlooked for promotion back home he decided to pack up and come to Malaysia to start anew.
Ferdinand, 48, was wearing a shirt soaked with sweat when we met him but he sat in the air conditioning room like it was nothing.
He had just finished cleaning several streets near SEED and was full of enthusiasm when talking about his life.
Ferdinand said his friends told him to come to Malaysia as there are plenty of opportunities for guys like him who work hard.
“You must have focus in whatever you do. That will keep you from being depressed,” he added.
“I work harder than the next person so the bosses I work with always trust me and give me jobs. I understand that Malaysians want higher salaries so, say a RM100 job for a local I would only get RM40.
“But that’s okay. It’s still money. For example, today I cleaned six blocks of streets. That job is a four-person job but I do it alone,” he said.
His first job in Malaysia was working in a kitchen in Genting where he learned how to cook. When that job ended, he decided to do odd jobs to save money to eventually go home and open up his own restaurant.
Ferdinand said the pandemic is not the time to be down as if you look around there are plenty of job opportunities.
“I don’t want to think about bad stuff. I’m doing well and I always work hard. I still feel Malaysia is a good place for business as back in Indonesia, a lot of the businesses are controlled by foreigners like the English,” he added.