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MALAYSIA: Death of a Migrant Worker

by Anil NettoInter Press Service News Agency
June 19th, 2007

He died a lonely death in a budget hotel room in downtown George Town earlier this month, far away from home. The death went unreported in the local media and unnoticed by most Malaysians. But what drove this worker from India in his mid-20s to take his life, assuming there was no foul play? Undertakers told IPS that the death certificate indicated the cause of death as hanging. His body was sent home to India on Sunday.

It was over a year ago that Vipin V. Nair arrived in Malaysia with others from Kerala and Tamil Nadu states in southern India to work in a multinational contract manufacturing services firm in the southern Malaysian state of Johor. The firm employs some 300 workers from India, about 50 of them from Kerala state.

The Kerala workers told IPS that they were promised by recruitment agents in India a basic monthly wage of 650 ringgit (190 US dollars) plus overtime once they arrived in Malaysia. Many of them had to fork out close to Rs 100,000 (2,500 dollars) each as fees to agents in India acting on behalf of Malaysian agents.

Some of the workers pledged their properties, others borrowed from money lenders or relatives. But when they arrived in Malaysia, they were shocked to find that the basic monthly wage was only 420 ringgit (120 dollars) plus overtime -- an all too common predicament for migrant workers here.

Complaints among migrant workers include unpaid wages, wages less than what had been promised and job descriptions different from what had been told to the workers in their home countries, said Florida Sandanasamy, programme officer with the migrants' rights group Tenaganita. In one case she highlighted, a group of farmers from Punjab was asked to climb a cable tower to do some repair work.

"We must have a standardised contract and this must be attested to by the respective embassies and high commissions,'' Sandanasamy said. "The Indian high commission, for instance, does not have a list of Indian workers in Malaysia nor do they know how many are working here.''

‘‘Vipin was crying (in his heart) when he first arrived,'' a colleague from Kerala recalled, as it dawned on him and his fellow migrant workers they would have to work at least two years before they could save enough to cover the agents' fees that they had paid in India. By the time the workers pay for their living expenses, send money to their families in India there is little left over. The work was also a lot tougher than what they had been told.

‘‘It is extremely hot,'' another worker told IPS. ‘‘We cannot bear it.'' Vipin was one of the more fortunate ones, working in the air-conditioned machining section. Still, it was all a far cry from what the agents in Chennai, Bangalore and Kerala had promised them. ‘‘They (agents) told different stories to different people,'' said a colleague. ‘‘The workers were told that they would be working in an air-conditioned environment (only certain parts of the plant are air-conditioned), that it was a simple job and easy work. But when they came here, they found themselves trapped,'' he said.

Employers retain their workers' passports, making it very difficult for them to return home before the end of their three-year contract period. Moreover, if the workers want to leave, they are often asked to immediately repay in full the annual foreign workers' levy that their employer pays to the government, which is usually recovered through the monthly wage deductions of around 120 ringgit (35 dollars).

Workers are also reluctant to return home earlier than scheduled because many of them are heavily indebted at home, having borrowed money to pay the agents' fees. Generally, many of them are afraid to complain as they may be sent back or asked to absorb the costs incurred, without any breakdown being given.

The colleague told IPS that Vipin had wanted to look for another job elsewhere in Malaysia through "a friend" -- which is usually not allowed as work permits tie the workers down to a specific employer. In Vipin's case, he had to pay his employer a sum of money to retrieve his passport before he left the firm. A company spokesman said Vipin had wanted to go on a short holiday and the money for the passport was collected as a deposit or guarantee. Whatever the case, ''he was very happy when leaving,'' said the colleague.

Vipin left the firm in Johore state before the end of May. A few days later he was found dead in the hotel here in Penang. What happened in between is unclear.

''Put it this way, I am not surprised,'' Ruth Paul of the Migrant Workers' Support Centre on mainland Penang said of Vipin's hanging. Migrant workers from India who are already in Malaysia are more vulnerable to exploitation and cheating than other nationalities, she told IPS. ''In some cases, they are cheated a second time by local Indian Malaysians who prey on these workers and promise them a better job and better salary only for them to be dumped, duped or exploited,'' said Paul.

‘'When the workers go and complain or bring their plight to their superiors' attention, they are threatened or beaten. Or they run away (and become undocumented or "illegal"). The majority of such workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Vietnam who are caught by the authorities are those who have been outsourced and cheated by agents on both sides,'' said lawyer Latheefa Koya, who has taken up cases on behalf of detained migrant workers.

''The workers are brought in using one company's name -- actually, an agent in the guise of a 2-ringgit company -- and then they are outsourced,'' Koya pointed out. ''Under Malaysia's new trafficking laws, workers without proper documents because they have been cheated or deceived by agents -- who had come here thinking they are doing something legal but instead end up working in an illegal situation -- would be considered victims of trafficking,'' she said.

If they make a police report, the police have to take action under the trafficking law. Meanwhile, a debate is raging over whether Malaysia, which introduced the law in April, deserves to be blacklisted by the United States in its latest annual ‘Trafficking in Persons Report' for not doing enough to fight human trafficking.

Malaysia was placed in Tier 3, among the worst offenders, triggering sharp protests from senior Malaysian government officials. Whatever the real cause of Vipin's death, the workers' dreams of saving up enough from their work in Malaysia have been shattered. And they remain unaware about Malaysia's efforts, or lack of them, in anti-trafficking. ''Many of us just want to return home to India,'' said Vipin's dejected colleague.



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