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LABOUR-MALAYSIA: Migrant Worker’s Death Exposes Slave-like Conditions

Anil Netto

KUALA LUMPUR, May 8 2007 (IPS) - The shocking torture and death of an Indian national allegedly at the hands of his employers here has highlighted the lack of protection and support networks for migrant workers in this country.

The brutalised body of R. Ganesh was flown back to Tamil Nadu state in India, one day after Malaysian workers observed Labour Day. Three suspects – sauce factory owner T. Rajan, his wife M. Ganeswari, and their 20-year-old son Vijaar – have been charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder. The case will be heard in court on Jun. 5.

Ganesh was reportedly subjected to daily beatings, deprived of food and sufficient rest, and chained and locked in a dark room. He was eventually dumped in a wooded area, but was found by villagers who sent him to hospital. He succumbed to his injuries on Apr. 27. Pictures of his gaunt face, the horrendous bruises on his back and his protruding rib cage shocked Malaysians. In hospital, he was little more than a bag of blistered skin and bones.

Ganesh’s may have been an extreme case, but it suggests that a poor regulatory framework and lack of a support network may have contributed to his ordeal and his inability to escape from his dire situation. In most cases, the balance of power in the relationship between employers and migrant workers is extremely lop-sided; most migrant workers are frequently at the mercy of their employers.

While many Malaysian employers treat their migrant workers with varying degrees of decency, there are others who are abusive or exploitative towards their workers who often have little recourse to protection. Work permits often specify or bind them to a single employer and their passports are usually held by the employers or agents, further restricting the workers’ freedom of movement.

There are fears that a proposed Foreign Workers’ Bill would restrict foreign workers to their living quarters, although Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has given an assurance that the workers’ freedom of movement would not be restricted under the new law.

Even if they were able to, most migrant workers are reluctant to return home earlier than scheduled because of the huge loans they have taken to finance their trip to Malaysia in the first place.

There are other deterrents. If at all they run away from their employers, without their passports or new work permits they are deemed to be undocumented or “illegal” migrants. They are then the targets of crackdowns by enforcement personnel or the uniformed volunteer vigilante group, Rela, which has often been accused of high-handed methods in rounding up undocumented migrants.

Once caught, undocumented workers are usually sent to immigration detention centres where conditions leave much to be desired. Courts at these centres sometimes impose a whipping sentence and those found guilty are eventually deported. All the immigration centres are reportedly overcrowded. A commissioner with the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) told the press that Suhakam’s recent visit to the Tanah Merah detention centre on the east coast revealed that over 600 migrant workers were housed in a space meant for 400.

One doctor who has treated undocumented migrants from a detention centre says some of them suffer from skin diseases and the effects of a poor diet, while others complain of a lack of sufficient drinking water. This appears to tally with the findings from interviews with deported workers conducted by rights group Tenaganita and civil society groups in the workers’ country of origin, according to the Tenaganita programme coordinator Aegile Fernandez.

In George Town, Penang, a visibly shaken young Indonesian domestic maid, Yati (not her real name), recently met IPS after running away from her employers the previous night. ”I was knocked on the head for the slightest mistake I made,” she said, tearfully. ”I just could not take it any more; so, when I had the chance, I ran out of the house without thinking of taking any of my belongings.” Without any money, her several months’ wages still unpaid, no change of clothing, and most crucially, without her passport, which was probably held by her employer or the local recruitment agent, Yati was helpless.

Yati eventually found her way to the Indonesian consulate in Penang, where every month some two to three dozen Indonesian maids seek refuge. The maids stay at the hostel there until they reach a negotiated settlement with their employers or are sent home.

The numbers seeking refuge are higher in the national capital.

Fernandez says an average of 150-200 migrant workers, the majority of them maids, seek refuge at the Indonesian embassy there every month. ”We put them under the category of ‘bonded labour’ and that falls under the category of trafficking,” she said. That is a view shared by the Geneva-based International Organisation of Migration (IOM), an inter-governmental group promoting humane and orderly migration.

Last year, the IOM began to help repatriate dozens of maids who lacked proper travel documents and were sheltering at the Indonesian consulate in Penang, it said in a press briefing note on its website. The IOM considers these women to be victims of trafficking although they had arrived in Malaysia using official international routes. The group noted that trafficking victims are exploited by unscrupulous labour agents and frequently subjected to physical, psychological and sexual abuse by their employers. ”They are particularly vulnerable when they enter countries illegally in search of employment, use forged papers or are forced to handover their legitimate travel documents.” It is not just domestic maids who are at risk.

An increasing trend is for outsourcing companies in Malaysia to hire workers from India and Bangladesh on behalf of ‘principal firms’, including multinational corporations, based in Malaysia. ”But once they come into the country, in many cases, they are not sent to the principal company and are instead placed in various locations doing temporary work,” says an activist, who declined to be identified.

In one case, he said, the workers had to work a few days in an oil palm plantation, next at a chicken farm, and then at a construction site. ”They were sent all around the country in groups.” It is a shattering experience for these workers, many of whom had taken loans ranging from 8,000 ringgit to 13,000 ringgit. (2,300-3,800 US dollars), often selling their homes and land to finance their trip here, he said.

For her part, Yati, the runaway maid, is not interested in staying back to claim her unpaid wages. ”I just want to go home to my family” – even if it means going home empty-handed.

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