By Alok Rana.
Adelina Sao, an Indonesian migrant domestic worker, was found sleeping next to a dog on the porch of the home she worked at. Her face was covered in bruises, her arms and legs were covered in burn marks, and puss was oozing from her injuries. She died shortly after she was rescued- her employer walked free
Suyanti Sutrinso, another Indonesian domestic worker, was attacked with a kitchen knife, a steel mop, a clothes hanger and an umbrella. The 19-year-old suffered from injuries to her arms, legs and internal organs. She had a broken scapula, injuries to her lungs, and a blood clot near her brain- her employer is out on bail
In January, a Bangladeshi construction worker fell to his death while working on a multi-storey building in Shah Alam. The victim, who was only reported by his first name ‘Kassim’, was extricated from the rubble four hours after his fall- The fire and rescue service stated the incident happened because “the cement had not fully hardened” yet.
These are three out of hundreds of thousands of cases that occur in Malaysia. It was recorded that every day in 2018 a Nepali migrant worker dies. It is clear that, when it comes to the living conditions and the treatment of migrant workers, the reality in Malaysia is as disturbing as it comes.
For decades Malaysia has relied on the foreign workforce, both legal and illegal workers, in manufacturing, construction, agricultural and domestic sectors. The ‘invisible’ manpower is vital to the labour force, but despite their immense contributions, they are exploited time and time again due to their vulnerable positions.
Those that are documented are limited in their ability to enforce their rights thanks to the language-barrier, the cost of lawyers, and their dependency on their employees to renew their contracts and remain in the legal framework.
Those without documentations- a situation that primarily arises due to employees confiscating their passports and refusing to legally renew their work permits- are in an even worse predicament. They are completely at the mercy of their employer and are afraid to bring up mistreatment to courts of law for fear of being charged themselves.
It is a sick cycle of abuse where, rather than treating migrant workers as helpful guests that contribute to our society, many Malaysian’s who employ foreign worker squeeze every bit of cheap labour they can get.
When it comes to the construction industry, it is primarily migrant workers who make up the workforce since Malaysian’s do not wish to work in places known for the 3D’s (dirty, difficult, dangerous). Despite supposed safety precautions such as the Safety and Health Induction Course (SHIC), the number of accidents in the Malaysian construction business are one of highest in the industry. A video circulated on social media last year showing two construction workers setting up a scaffolding atop a skyscraper. There were zero safety harnesses as they climbed on rake thin poles, high enough that one misstep meant imminent death.
When it comes to the domestic and industrial industry’s, the reality for migrant workers is just as bleak. They are lured to the country under the false pretence of easy jobs and good payment. According to reports by both The Telegraph and The Guardian, what follows is torturous- Malaysian companies often withhold wages, force overtime, make their workers pay for their living quarters and all in all submit them to what some say is equitable to “modern day slavery.” The number of reported suicides of migrant workers in Malaysia is disturbingly high, not surprising considering the major emotional stress and abuse faced during their time in the country.
So, what is being done to curb this deadly trend that puts the life of both documented and undocumented migrant workers at risk?
The new government, Pakatan Harapan, announced plans to improve old labour laws to increase protection, but until now they have shown very little interest in actually tackling the labour migration situation. The only visible move has been to reintroduce an amnesty scheme aimed to get millions of illegal foreign workers to voluntarily leave the country before the are charged. However, critics say this is a band aid on a serious wound, as Adrian Pereira, founder of a social justice initiative stated, “its a cosmetic solution to the problem”, continuing to claim, “As long as there’s no comprehensive labour policy on migrant management, we are not solving the root causes for abuses.”
The government MUST take a more hands-on, rights-based approach. The Malaysian people MUST be educated and learn to treat these workers as they would house guests, both peacefully and compassionately. Sustainable policies that set a higher standard when it comes to construction, industrial and domestic laws MUST be implemented.
Never mind the fact that happy and cared-for workers would help build a resilient economy for Malaysia, but as of now, these human beings are being treated as if they are disposable. Change is needed, change is needed now.