Human Writes: One Nepali migrant worker died every day in Malaysia in 2018

  • Living
  • Sunday, 10 Feb 2019

File photo of survivors of a construction site accident in Penang being rushed to an ambulance. Photo: The Star

Last month, a construction worker was killed when the floor collapsed in a multistorey building under construction in Taman Teknologi Subang Hi-Tech, Shah Alam. The victim, whose name was only reported as “Kassim”, crashed 14m down, along with steel reinforcement rods and the cement mixture.

He was extricated out of the rubble four hours later, dead.

Kassim will be returning to his native Bangladesh in a coffin, where, in all probability, the family that he was a breadwinner for will feel his loss bitterly.

A fire and rescue services official said that the incident happened because “the cement had not fully hardened” yet.

No, the cause was a fatal failure in safety precautions, because of a lack of enforcement of safety laws, because of the failure to prosecute such cases, and because of our awful apathy about such deaths.

Last year, a shocking video circulated on social media of two construction workers setting up scaffolding atop a skyscraper with no safety harnesses. They were climbing around on rake-thin poles with not a thing to hang on to. One misstep meant certain death. It was hard to believe things were so bad in Malaysia. But the background buildings showed that this was indeed Kuala Lumpur.

We may try to look like a First World city with our imposing skyscrapers, but our safety measures in constructing them are most definitely Third World.

The number of coffins with dead migrant workers that leave Malaysia is simply scandalous.

Every day in 2018, a Nepali migrant worker died in Malaysia. The figure was just as bad in 2017, with 364 deaths, the Kathmandu Post newspaper reported.

A 2016 report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on the deaths of Nepali workers overseas also found Malaysia had the highest number of deaths, followed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, although this was partly due to high numbers of Nepalese coming here.

Many deaths of Nepalese in Malaysia were put down to “other or unidentified cause”, the ILO report noted. There were also a large number of deaths down to cardiac arrest or heart attack.

These deaths have been challenged by rights groups in Nepal, who have questioned the reliability of postmortem reports in Malaysia. They asked how so many physically fit Nepali workers could die this way. They believe Malaysian employers attribute the deaths to heart failure rather than workplace incidents to avoid paying compensation and insurance claims to the families of workers.

Possibly, there could be cardiac cases related to working conditions such as stress, overwork, handling toxic materials. We just don’t know because of the lack of proper investigation.

Tragically, the ILO report also noted a significant number of suicides among Nepalese in Malaysia. When these workers face problems here, there is often no recourse for justice. In many incidents, workers have been arrested or even deported when they tried to protest unsafe conditions.

Allowing companies to get away with murder – literally – is not only just wrong, it perpetuates unsafe, unscrupulous companies.

Appalling workers’ conditions in local companies made headlines in Britain recently. In December, The Guardian newspaper reported that workers at one Malaysian company were enduring “modern day slavery” with wages withheld, debt bondage, forced overtime in poorly-ventilated factories where temperatures near ovens soared to 70°C, as well as overcrowding and poor conditions in dormitories. The company manufactures supplies for Britain’s National Health Service.

Another company, a global leader based in Malaysia, also recently made headlines in Britain when it was reported that workers’ salaries were barely enough to survive on (one worker said he received RM6 per hour) and many workers were bonded by debt. In addition, workers had to pay for their living quarters which comprised “no mattress, a piece of string on a grimy wall for a wardrobe, access to a filthy, broken toilet”, The Telegraph newspaper reported.

Encouragingly, while writing this column, the Pakatan Harapan government announced plans to improve old labour laws – some of which date back to the 1950s – so that both domestic and foreign workers have more legal protection.

“We need to ensure the dignity and protection” of both domestic and foreign workers, Human Resources Minister M. Kulasegaran was quoted as saying in an article in Singapore’s Sunday Times newspaper last Sunday. The minister is preparing to restore the damage to Malaysia’s reputation as a unsafe place to work.

He also said that the Malaysian company mentioned in The Guardian’s report is facing 42 charges for mistreating its workers, including not paying them for three months and providing very poor conditions. Ten other firms are being investigated by the government.

Kulasegaran also posed a question: What if the more than one million Malaysians working overseas were treated in this way? “How would you feel if they too face the same treatment?”

Well said, minister. We shouldn’t forget these workers make Malaysia work. They operate our industries that run our economy.

Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at

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