To have a job in a time of crisis may seem a blessing, but what if your employer, for whatever reason, does not pay your salary at the scheduled period? You may accept their excuses in good faith and treat it as a one-time thing—we are in a crisis, after all—and be prepared to wait until the next pay day. Once may be tolerable, but again, four weeks later? And now with an accumulated salary of two months owed? How many months would you go on like this, continuing to work without being paid, enduring this state of uncertainty because not having a job would mean a certainty of zero income?
For Puan Nur Zahirah Zakaria, 55, a cleaner at a primary school in Sekinchan, Selangor, this is not a rhetorical question but an ordeal she had faced every day since the end of November last year when her employer first stopped paying her.
As the breadwinner in a household of four, she counts on being paid for her work at the end of each month. She earns the minimum wage for non-urban areas—RM1,100—out of which she gets an even less spending total of RM973, after deducting for her contributions to the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) and Social Security Organisation (SOCSO).
Remarkably, she has always managed to save a little even from that paltry amount. From a lifetime of thrift built into her.
Her husband is in his 60s and only able to “kerja sawah sikit-sikit” in the morning, earning RM25 a day. They have four children—two are married and have their own households to run; two live with them—a 31-year-old who could not find permanent work and a 19-year-old who is hoping to continue her studies after STPM.
So, how long did Puan Nur Zahirah bear with not being paid, continuing to work regardless?
Four months. More than 100 days of worry, during which she spent RM11,000, dipping into her savings as expenses piled up due to many things breaking down, from her roof to her car air-conditioner. Her biggest expenditure was to replace the faulty electrical wiring and the resulting spoilt equipment. “Api pecah…dua, tiga, empat wiring baru. Kipas, dua kena pasang. Semuanya RM4,300,” she said.
Her roof is leaking after the recent storms tore off a couple of pieces of zinc, but repairing it will have to wait, as she estimates it will cost RM3,000. “Nak beli zink sekarang, mahal. Tak tahu cukup pun, RM3,000.”
She had tried applying for funds from the eKasih poverty programme but was unsuccessful. “Dua puluh orang minta, semua tak dapat. Hanya satu sahaja yang dapat…rumahnya terbakar,” she said.
While all this was going on, Jaringan Pekerja Kontrak Kerajaan (JPKK), a network of government contract workers, was helping to bring up their cases to the authorities, the District Education Office (or its Malay acronym, PPD) of the Ministry of Education. For there were many other cleaners in the same position, other problematic companies, with other anomalies such as not contributing to employees’ EPF. The prevalence of these problems points to poor accountability among the authorities and the need to fix the system. To be heard and taken seriously, the workers needed to take collective action.
The first proposed action was to not turn up for work until the problem is resolved. Puan Nur Zahirah, however, was in a bind. She took pride in being responsible for her work and felt bad that the teachers would have to do the cleaning in her place if she did not show up. “Saya kasihan cikgu, tak mahu cikgu basuh tandas saya. Saya kata, cikgu jangan buat kerja saya,” she said.
On top of that, an officer from the Pejabat Pelajaran Daerah came to her school to monitor the situation one day, threatening, “Siapa mogok, datang, punch card, tak buat kerja, saya akan potong gajinya,” Puan Nur Zahirah relayed.
A proposed sit-in protest outside the Prime Minister’s Department, however, was agreeable to her.
But it would take a whole working day, as it is a four-hour to-and-fro journey by bus. With an annual leave of only six days, she could not afford to apply for leave so early in the year. So, she paid a friend RM40 to work in her place so that she could go to Putrajaya. “Sebenarnya RM38,” she said, clarifying her daily rate. “Tapi saya bagi dua ringgit lebih.” To round it up.
So, on 29 March, Puan Nur Zahirah joined 52 other cleaners in Sabak Bernam to camp outside the Prime Minister’s Department, packing up food, mats, clothing, and whatever else they needed. That morning, right after boarding the bus, Puan Nur Zahirah received a last-minute text message from her employer imploring them to cancel the protest. But arrangements were already made and in place.
The sit-in made the authorities sit up. The officer they met promised that their salaries will be fully paid on 1 April. Puan Nur Zahirah is still owed a month’s salary.
She remembered her starting pay was around RM900, so, it has been an increase of just a couple of hundred ringgit over a decade—averaging at RM20 a year—and that, too, is thanks in large part to labour activists fighting to raise the minimum wage over the years.
There are other problems remaining. Her employer has not been consistently contributing to her EPF. The number of leave days she is entitled to annually is another point of contention, which was why she chose to write on her protest sign, “Mana cuti tahun kami?” Under the labour law, those who have worked one to two years are entitled to a minimum of eight days’ annual leave. She has worked for three companies over 10 years or so and had eight days previously, but only six under her current employer.
That will be another battle for another day. But it will not be a lone one as the network of cleaners continues to grow under the JPKK to stand up for their rights.