End the abuse of migrant workers

FORCED to work long hours, cheated of wages and beaten if they say something. Like a nauseous serial drama, stories of migrant workers suffering at the hands of employers have gone on for decades.

In the latest harrowing episode, a worker who fled a banana leaf restaurant in Petaling Jaya related his three years of suffering to a popular Tamil YouTube channel hosted by actress Lakshmy Ramakrishnan – who has millions of viewers – last Saturday.

Identified only as Velayutham, the man from Pudukkottai, Tamil Nadu, said he came to Malaysia in 2018 on a tourist visa. He had hoped to get a job as a carpenter but was tricked by his recruitment agent into working at the restaurant temporarily. He claimed that besides not being paid his salary, he was also whacked by one of the bosses. He also alleged that a fellow worker who suffered sexual abuse was doused with petrol and set ablaze for threatening to expose the matter.

The man said his colleague was asked to apply ointment on the burns before being taken to a clinic, where he was told to say the injuries were the result of a gas cylinder explosion.

He claimed that during his one and a half years at the eatery, he did not get his salary from the restaurant, but the local agent took part of it and sent the rest to his family in India. Among the other shocking accusations was that workers were regularly threatened with beatings and death for not working hard enough, despite toiling from 5am to midnight daily.

Velayutham, 31, told the channel host that he managed to contact a friend who reported the matter to an Indian immigration officer. The officer called the agent who promised to send him back within two days.

But instead of doing what he promised, he contacted the local agent and employer.

Velayutham also claimed that his passport was burnt to prevent him from fleeing, but he managed to escape to Seremban where he worked odd jobs for a year, initially as an unpaid farmhand and later as a construction site worker.

On Sunday, Human Resources Minister M. Saravanan went live on air with the channel’s host. He explained that immediate action had been taken to investigate the matter, resulting in the arrest of one person and rescue of two workers. The restaurant in question was cooperating with the authorities, he added.

Saravanan said his ministry could act against employers for breaches of labour laws but the criminal allegations of death threats and assaults would be probed by the police. For this, Velayutham would have to return to Malaysia to lodge a police report, and he assured the worker that adequate protection would be given to him.

The person arrested was a 33-year-old man described as a “former supervisor” of the restaurant and the rescued were Indian nationals aged 22 and 34. They have been housed in a shelter under a 21-day interim protection order. The suspect has been remanded until tomorrow.

Whatever the claims, the truth will be known when the probe is completed soon. The more alarming issue, however, is the neverending occurrence of such abuses.

In July 2019, three Indian nationals were found chained, beaten and malnourished in Lipis, Pahang. They had paid an agent in India who promised them jobs in an oil palm plantation. Upon arrival at KLIA, their passports and mobile phones were taken away. They were forced to work for 12 hours a day without leave and paid RM600 a month. Police arrested their tormentor, a 36-year-old man.

In April this year, the Human Resources Ministry rescued a 45-year-old Indian national who went into hiding after being allegedly threatened with death by his employer in Raub, Pahang. The man recorded an emotional video telling his next of kin whom to look for if he was killed. He made several allegations, including non-payment of salary totalling RM6, 000 and of being frequently abused and assaulted.

He was sent back to India after the employer paid the amount but it is not known if anyone was charged over the much-publicised case.

In another case in the same month, the police freed 22 migrant workers after raiding an eatery and two workers’ dormitories in Taman Chi Liung, Klang. The abused 11 women from Indonesia and 11 men from India, who were supposed to get salaries of RM1, 500 a month, were only paid RM10 a day for working up to 12 hours without any days off.

Also in April, a video of two restaurant workers being abducted from a restaurant in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, by a group of men went viral. Police said investigations showed that the abducted workers, both Indian nationals, were former employees of a food outlet in Klang who ran off after the employer allegedly failed to pay their salaries.

The case has since gone to court with a restaurant manager charged with illegally confining, intimidating, injuring and threatening to kill the workers.

These are just the cases that have been reported. How many more victims are out there? No one really knows.

In most cases, migrant workers usually pay large sums of money to agents to secure jobs in Malaysia, even up to US$1, 000. To raise this, many sell plots of family-owned lands or take loans at high interest rates. They are caught in the trap of debt bondage and unable to return home.

There are enough laws in the country to act against unscrupulous employers and agents, such as Section 13 of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act 2007, Section 55B of the Immigration Act 1959 and 1963, as well as Section 12 (1) (f) of the Passport Act 1966.

As always, the problem is lack of earnest enforcement.

Media consultant M. Veera Pandiyan likes this observation by Abraham Lincoln: “It has so happened in all ages of the world that some have laboured, and others have, without labour, enjoyed a large proportion of the fruits.”

The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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