Toiling in thrall

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 17 Aug 2008

Foreign workers come to work here filled with hopes of a brighter future for them and their families. Instead, some are forced to live and work in slavery-like conditions.

ONE would think that the days of slavery when people were whipped and tortured are long gone. Maybe whipping is no longer a regular feature these days but slavery-like conditions still exist, albeit in different forms.

Disturbingly, they exist in our own backyard too, as two recent cases showed. The first, highlighted by Tamil dailies, exposed the mistreatment of workers at Sungai Senarut Estate in Batu Anam, Segamat.

Ill-treated workers: (From left to right) Ramjan Ali, Salam Miah, Abdul Gafur and Salim from Bangladeshcomplained about the treatment they received from their employers in an estate in Pahang.

It prompted Human Resources Minister Datuk Dr Subramaniam to order the registration of all contractors supplying workers to estates throughout the country with the Manpower Department from this month.

The second case under media spotlight was that of a local company contracted to sportswear giant Nike. An Australian television station reported that the firm placed its workers in “unacceptable” housing, withheld their passports and paid them meagre wages.

Not their dream job

When Abdul Gafur, 35, one of the estimated 2.3 million legal foreign workers who come mainly from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal and India, applied for a job in Malaysia through an agent, he was filled with hope that he would finally be able to improve his family’s life.

The father-of-three sold his house back home to raise RM11,000 required to get a “good-paying” job here. As the agent banked in the money, a huge sum for someone from a poverty-stricken background, Gafur and 10 others like him made their way to work in an oil palm plantation in Pahang 14 months ago.

After seizing their passports, the employer dumped Gafur and the others in a small house. They were made to work almost every day although the contracts stipulated that it would be for 26 days a month and that they would earn RM680, excluding overtime.

With their monthly levy fees (RM50) and utility bills deducted from their salaries, Gafur and his colleagues ended up with only about RM400 a month despite working at least 10 hours a day.

Out of that, RM200 was deducted for food they were forced to buy from their supervisor. After deducting money for cigarettes and call charges home, most were left with only about RM100 a month.

Gafur said he had only managed to send RM1,000 back to his family. One worker was sent back after he became mentally ill while six others decided to escape.

After much thought, Gafur and the remaining three workers decided to go to the Bangladeshi High Commission in Kuala Lumpur to file complaints against their employer for mistreatment and not honouring their contracts. They did this despite the fear of being caught and detained, as they did not have their passports or documents to show that they had entered the country legally.

“We just couldn’t take it any more and decided to take the risk,” said Gafur, who now carries around a photocopy of his passport.

Tenaganita’s Aegile Fernandez said cases like his were common but the authorities were not taking any action. She said that although it was an offence to withhold another person’s legal documents, employers would always say they were holding the passports for safekeeping and to make sure there were no runaways.

“But if the workers go out with their photocopied versions, they will be held by the authorities. When the workers are caught, the employers won’t come to bail them. The employers, however, do not get arrested,” she added.

Zakir Hussain, 38, a Bangladeshi who has been in Malaysia for 15 years, said he had heard of employers who would only let their workers keep their passports with a condition – a minimum “deposit” of RM2,000.

In some cases, employers do not renew their workers’ permits, resulting in the foreigners working illegally.

A. Latsoomanan, secretary of the Klang Consumer Association, handled a case where the agent threatened not to renew his workers’ permits.

“He told them that he would report them to the authorities if they complained about anything,” he said, adding that the workers from India eventually brought their problems of being ill treated to him.

Abuses common

According to Fernandez, many employers often resorted to physical, mental and even sexual abuse to show they meant business.

Salim, 26, said he was physically abused by his supervisor when he complained about his low wages.

“He threw rocks on my hand. I did not dare fight back,” he said, adding that his employer even challenged workers to go to the embassy to make complaints about their unhappiness.

Another worker, Ramjan Ali, 35, claimed that physical abuse was common and that supervisors would slap them at their whim and fancy.

Salam Miah, 26, came with a permit to work in a factory but was forced to become an oil palm harvester instead. He has become used to being slapped by his supervisor. “Even if the big boss is there, the slapping goes on,” he said.

He said his supervisor once pushed him very hard, causing him to fall face downwards. He lost a tooth and two more look like they might fall out soon, he said.

The push was his punishment for not being able to lift a heavy sack.

Fernandez said domestic maids also suffered such abuse from employers. Tenaganita has recorded more than 250 complaints of maids being abused over the past four years.

Welfare not taken care of

In many places of work, the safety and welfare of workers do not get high priority. Despite the hazards on the floor, for example, workers are not given safety boots to wear.

A former executive at a waste management factory in Sungai Buloh said: “During my short tenure there, I saw at least four workers being sent to hospital because they stepped on nails on the floor. After many complaints, the management finally bought safety boots for workers but they were cheap and of poor quality.”

He said the workers also suffered from malnutrition as the employer cut costs on food supplied for them. The workers, he said, only ate rice with vegetables daily.

The executive said the workers were made to live in a makeshift hut beside the factory. “The place was full of sawdust and not fit for anyone to live in,” he said.

Fernandez said the lack of proper accommodation made life more miserable for these workers.

In the case involving the Nike contractor, 26 workers were alleged to have been housed in a filthy room while many were forced to bathe together, using a single trough of water.

The lack of proper medical care is another serious problem faced by foreign workers. Gafur, for example, was not brought to a doctor despite complaining about a stomach ailment for two months.

Ramjan said he was sent to the clinic but his employer cut RM40 from his already meagre salary.

Limited redress

S. Arutchelvan, secretary of Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM), said foreign workers were often victimised even if they are legal.

Under Malaysian law, workers, foreign or otherwise, are protected by the Employment Act 1955 and the Industrial Relations Act 1967.

“The Labour Department under the Human Resource Ministry oversees this. There are also a few other laws that apply, such as the Workers’ Minimum Standards Of Housing And Amenities Act 1990 but these deal with issues like housing, access to water, and such.”

Arutchelvan said workers could lodge reports with the Labour Department if they had any grouse with their employers or issues with their living condition.

“The law says that foreign and local workers are equal, but in reality there is no such thing. Problems are rampant whether the worker is legal or illegal.” he said.

He said employers made workers sign contracts which have terms preventing them from being involved in unions.

“This takes away their right to organise. The employer also holds their passport. The minute they are seen as outspoken, they are dismissed. That makes them illegal and this is the way they are controlled.”

He said legal workers were victimised by syndicates involved in bringing them into the country. They sign contracts promising them high salaries in their home country. But when they arrive here, they are handed over to a local agent, who then makes them sign contracts that pay much lower than the ones they originally signed.

“Even if they protest, the local agent will say he knows nothing about the other contract. He will just ask the worker if he wants to work or to return home,” he said.

“There is very little redress. Once he is illegal, he loses all his rights. If he goes to the Labour Department, the first thing they will ask is whether he is legal. If he is not, that is a matter for the Immigration Department. It is very difficult for the worker as he is in a strange land and does not know the system.”

Arutchelvan said the situation had come about because of the unofficial cheap labour policy.

“Employers want cheap labour, so either they go to China, or foreign workers are brought into Malaysia. So in a system like this there will be abuse.

“One way to stop this is to have a minimum wage act, but Malaysia does not have that, and so we have a big problem instead.

“With an act like this, employers will have to pay, and locals will work for them and this will solve our foreign labour problem,” he said.

Locals not spared

Local workers, too, have not been spared ill treatment by employers. Eduardo Marusin, the secretary of Malaysian Momogun Society, said there had been cases in which agents promised youths from Sabah lucrative jobs in the peninsula.

Marusin said the agents would bear the cost of flight tickets but as soon as the youths arrived in peninsular Malaysia, a contract would be forced upon them and the employer would hold their identity cards.

“They have to obey the contract because they don’t have any money and are in a new place. Agents usually target uneducated youths from the rural areas,” he said.

Related story:Bonded labour in estates

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