Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Dayaks - The backbone of Sarawak

Every Gawai Dayak season, work in Sarawak grinds to a halt. Kuching city was deserted on Monday and yesterday, appearing more like a ghost town.

Cafes, bars and restaurants were closed, some until the end of the week. Construction sites have shut down. Factories dusted and locked up. Supermarkets, even the large franchises, have their shutters down.

The Dayaks are not only Sarawak’s largest racial group, they also disproportionately make up the labour workforce. Their contribution to nation building is vastly undervalued, if we are to judge solely on how productivity plunges when they go home for Gawai.

The urban privileged might like to think they are the state’s economic backbone (a large number have this bloated worldwide of themselves). But really, it is the Dayaks who do much of the important legwork. They run the kitchens and build the actual roads, bridges and houses. They are the muscle that the state’s economy depends on.

Sectors ranging from waste disposal to even councils struggle with worker shortages every year this time. Kuching North City Hall mayor told me roughly 25% of council employees are Dayak. “About a quarter of the staff are on leave for one week or so,” Datuk Abang Abdul Wahap Abang Julai said.

“We try not to let more than 25% go on leave. Some do have to take turns. If they go this year, next year they stay back. The same applies to our Muslim employees and Hari Raya.”

In the construction sector, virtually all work comes to a standstill for two weeks around Gawai. Workers have to leave before the public holidays to take long journeys back home. Of the state’s 6,000 settlements, many are still not connected by road. Deep in the hinterland, rivers are the highways.

Members of the Sarawak Building and Civil Engineering Contractors Association say work is not expected back at full capacity for at least another week.

“A contract is just a contract. In real life, we have to be more accommodative,” a project manager of a construction firm said.

“Even though we want to have work schedules according to public holidays – which means most people should be back by June 5 – we in the construction sector know many labourers will unlikely return before June 10.”

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