Violence, prejudice and low pay: all in a day’s work for migrants in Malaysia | Pete Pattison

Undocumented workers in Malaysia put in long hours for little money, are often excluded from healthcare and schools, and face routine intimidation

Sonam Lapcha might have been able to handle the putrid lavatories, dirty drinking water and drunkards staggering around his workers hostel, were it not that he had to share a single dormitory with 300 other men.

Lapcha, 30, a migrant worker from Nepal, spent five years crammed alongside hundreds of fellow migrants from Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh, all employed by a factory close to Malaysias capital, Kuala Lumpur.

The lavatories had no doors, and there were only two kitchens to serve the entire workforce. It was much worse than Nepal, tells Lapcha. We even had to buy our own beds and bedclothe. The company merely gave us a metal frame.

Lapcha, though, did not spend much time in his bed. His transformation started at 8am and did not finish until 10 or 11 at night. Then he had to face the dangerous walk back to his lodgings during which, he tells, the workers were regularly beaten and robbed by locals.

Worse still, he was barely earning any money. The company didnt pay us what we were promised. And we had to spend the little we did make on food and transport, he tells. Instead of earning money, I was throwing it away.

Eventually, Lapcha fled the factory in search of a better task, joining an army of undocumented workers across Malaysia that some NGOs and trade union say is more than 4 million-strong. Most arrive through legal routes but then, like Lapcha, become undocumented to escape dire accommodation, low pay or because employers refuse to renew their work permits. One official at Nepals embassy in Kuala Lumpur tells: The workers are not illegal they are made illegal by their employers.

Others, like Srey Uon from Cambodia, never had legal status in the first place. Uon, 32, works for 15 hours a day bind bunches of herbs in a bustling hypermarket in Kuala Lumpur. It is tedious work, but the 1,200 ringgit( 220) she earns each month is more than she could is expected to be make in Cambodia. Like an estimated 70% of Cambodian migrant workers in the country, Uon traversed into Malaysia illegally with the help of smugglers.

I worry a lot here, especially when I go outside, she tells. Its not comfortable but I have no choice because I have to support my family.

Uon came to Malaysia with her husband, but she had to leave her two young children behind with her mothers. That was two years ago and, because it costs so much to return to Cambodia, she is unlikely to see them for another three years. I actually miss my children. Its so difficult. But I cant afford to visit them.

Working alongside her, My Som, 44, chose to bring her seven-year-old twins with her after her husband died in Cambodia, but she barely sees them. I work from 8am to 11 pm every day. I get two days off each month, Som tells. Even if Im sick I have to come to work. If not, they will threaten you because you are undocumented. Som has to spend a one-third of her monthly income on childcare because government schools in Malaysia generally dont acknowledge the children of undocumented workers.

Many hospitals are also out of reach for undocumented workers, as Mahesh Mondal knows to his cost. With an energy drink in one hand and a saline drip attached to the other, the 20 -year-old from Nepal explains how he resigned from one task when a friend persuaded him he could earn more as a security guard. He had to leave behind his passport, which his employer had confiscated.

Six weeks later, however, he contracted dengue fever. Local clinics told him to go to hospital, but he was turned away because he had no passport, leaving him to resort to a remedy for dengue fever, popular among migrants 10 cans of energy drink every day.

I feel dizzy the whole hour. My whole body hurts, tells Mondal. My household tells me to come home fast, but I feel bad. I never made any money. I will not come back here.

The exclusion of undocumented workers from public service reflects wider discrimination against migrants. In a recent report, the International Labour Organisation told: Scapegoating of migrants, irrespective of the realities, has contributed to an environment where exploitation and abuse are sometimes viewed as acceptable.

Nepalese migrant workers say they never go out alone or in small groups for dread of being assaulted or robbed mostly by Malaysian Tamils, they claim.

Mahesh
Mahesh Mandal, 20, from Nepal was suffering from dengue fever, but could not get therapy at a hospital as he was an undocumented employee with no passport. Photo: Pete Pattisson

Where is it safe? Its risky for us in the morning and afternoon , not just at night. There is a daily incident in this area, tells one Nepalese migrant in the southern city of Johor Bahru.

People dont behave nicely nowadays, tells a migrant who has lived in Malaysia for eight years and operates a eatery in the centre of Kuala Lumpur. They think we come here to take their food, their money, their place. They treat you like a second-class person. It really hurts me.

Migrants, especially those who are undocumented, are also afraid of the police, whom one employee described as robbers in a uniform.

As soon as Vani, an undocumented employee from Cambodia, sat down at an outdoor coffeehouse, his body tensed. He had spotted a police officer he recognised driving by on a motorbike. Im very nervous when I watch the security forces, he tells. You have to walk slowly and not show that you are afraid. He has been picked up four times by the police, and each time has had to pay them off with a hefty fine.

The first time, he tried to talk his way out of it but, he tells, the police beat him up and he had to hand over 700 ringgit, almost a months wages. Now when they catch me I dont talk, tells Vani. I just ask them how much they want.

Vani and millions of other migrant workers are caught up in a system that is arbitrary and indifferent, tells Sumitha Shaanthinni Kishna, coordinator of the Migration Working Group Malaysia. The informal sector is flourish; locals dont wishes to do this work and the cost of recruiting documented workers is unaffordable to some employers, explains Kishna.

There is very little political will to deal with the problem. As long as someone is making money out of migrants, the exploitation will not stop.

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