KUALA LUMPUR – Like other Burmese nationals, Ko Myo Kyaw probably took nearly a month to get all the necessary documents that would enable him to work abroad. He probably also lined up with hundreds of other hopeful jobseekers outside the emigration office in central Rangoon. He went through all that just so he could go overseas to work. Yet while he obviously wasn’t expecting a red carpet welcome here in Malaysia, where a job was waiting for him, he was apparently surprised by the treatment he received almost as soon as he stepped out of the plane.
“The airport was the first place where we lost our dignity,” he recalls angrily.
He says that when he and his companions from Burma entered the immigration area at the airport here, an immigration official ordered them to go to a certain spot where they had to sit on the floor. The official, says Ko Myo Kyaw, used his feet to point them to the area. There, they were handed over to a Malaysian agent who took their passports.
“This was the last time I saw my passport,” says Ko Myo Kyaw.
It is common practice for Malaysian employers to keep the passports of foreign workers, who now make up one-fifth of this country’s workforce. Dr. Shanti Thambia, head of the Gender Studies Department at the University of Malaya, says this is a form of human trafficking, but no one in the Malaysian government seems to be paying much attention to such views. Then again, Latheefa Koya, secretary of Malaysia’s Bar Council, says, “Malaysia is a country that has little sympathy for foreigners.”
That seems especially true for migrant workers like Ko Myo Kyaw and many of his compatriots here. One after another, Burmese migrants tell heartbreaking stories that make listeners wonder how – and why – they put up with the circumstances they find themselves in here in Malaysia.
For sure, many of them are here illegally; according to media reports, as much as 80 percent of Burmese workers in Malaysia are sent by unregistered manpower companies in Burma. But while some observers reason that those who are here illegally cannot expect protection from the host government, others say that not only do illegal migrants still have rights, it is also far too easy for those who have the proper papers to lose their legal status in this country.
Lost status… and appendages
Migrant workers lose their legal status once they overstay their visa or work permit, which is issued against their employer’s name. The permit lapses as well once one is dismissed from one’s job, the reason for which may or may not be justifiable. Interestingly enough, local legal experts say that Malaysian employers prefer migrants without legal status even though they may have to pay a maximum fine of 50,000 ringgit (almost $16,000) and spend a year in prison if they are caught with such workers.
A general manager of a furniture company that recruits Burmese migrant workers says employers take the risk mainly to evade taxes.
“Under the current policy,” he says, “a company can hire five migrant workers if it shows capital assets of 100,000 ringgit ($32,000). If it shows assets worth 200,000 ringgit ($64,000), it can hire up to 15. But the reality is that companies never want to reveal the real value of their assets and use illegal workers instead.”
At the same time, Malaysian lawyer Muhendaran Suppiah says there are loopholes in local labour laws that favour abusive employers, including those who do not pay workers the salaries promised by recruitment agencies in Burma. Often, too, migrant labourers do not get properly compensated for injuries they sustain at the workplace, with employers taking advantage of their ignorance of local laws, as well as the procedure for filing claims. One 19-year-old Burmese says that just a month after arriving in Malaysia, he lost his right hand during an accident at the factory where he works. Up till now, he says, he has yet to receive any compensation.
Soc Tidar says she lost a finger in a workplace accident more than a year ago. After going through the lengthy claim procedure, she says her supervisor told her that she would be given 4,000 ringgit ($1,270). In the end, however, she received only 2,000 ringgit ($636), because the factory deducted the rest as “medical expenses”.
U Kyaw Win, who has been working in Malaysia for the last 17 years, says the 500,000 or some Burmese migrants here are employed mainly in the heavy and light industrial sectors. Other Burmese workers meanwhile say that it is the men among them who usually run away from abusive employers, exposing them to the risk of arrest as illegal workers. According to Dato Ishak Hj. Mohamed of Malaysia’s Immigration Department, a foreign worker who has no work permit or has overstayed his or her visa may face punishment that includes whipping, a minimum fine of 10,000 ringgit (about $3,100), and a maximum jail term of five years.
“Men are more likely to become ‘o’ (overstayers and other kinds of illegal workers) because they dare to take the risk,” says Ma Nyo, who works in a telephone-accessory factory. “For us, we try to tolerate any condition because we need security as women in a foreign land.”
It could also well be that many of them have heard of the detestable conditions in Malaysia’s 16 detention centres for illegal migrants and want to avoid being thrown into one. Ko Win Tun, who spent some two years in one of these overcrowded centres, says that six of his fellow detainees died while he was there. “The drinking water in my camp was usually contaminated with the waste of birds and other animals,” he also says. “People got sick very often because of insufficient nutrition and dirty water.”
Deaths in detention
Just this May, two Burmese migrant workers who were at the Juru Immigration Detention Centre in Penang Island reportedly died at a local hospital. Both men were believed to have suffered from leptospirosis, which is usually transmitted through cuts in the skin that comes into contact with water contaminated with rat urine or waste. At least 23 other detainees also ended up in a hospital where they received treatment for the same illness.
Last January, two other Burmese detainees died at another detention camp. No cause of death was given by authorities, although Burmese migrants say the detention camps underwent noticeable tightening in their rules. One former detainee also says that immigration officials and members of the paramilitary civil volunteers corps Ikatan Relawan Rakyat Malaysia or RELA, which runs after illegal migrants, began harassing detainees. The ex-detainee says that during searches, some migrants at the centres are beaten up.
Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director of the international group Human Rights Watch, has been quoted as saying, “A long, hard look at Malaysia’s performance on fundamental human rights, including its detention practices, is in order. Countries should call Malaysia to account for failing to address abuses against migrants and refugees, and for its continuing use of preventative detention.”
Lawyer Latheefa, who specialises in human-rights cases, herself says that Malaysia’s human rights standards are low; the country needs to reform its migrant-worker laws, she adds. Yet while she knows ASEAN now has a human-rights body, Latheefa does not expect it to make much of an impact on the way Malaysia treats its foreign labourers. She notes that members of the regional grouping seem to have an unspoken agreement to turn a blind eye on any rights shortcomings each may have, likening the attitude to “you watch my back, I watch your back”.
Even officials of ASEAN member states have different views on just how much effect a regional human-rights body would make on governments in the region. For example, Usana Berananda, chief of the Thai foreign ministry’s ASEAN Department policy unit, is among those who are thinking positive, and says that ASEAN is looking at areas where institutionalised rights enforcement is feasible. But there also those like Leong Sze Hian of the Singapore Working Committee for the ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism who believe a human-rights body within the group is unlikely to make things better for, say, migrant workers. As Leong sees it, different ASEAN members simply have different migrant issues and may therefore find it hard to come together for a common solution.
As it is, the 2007 ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers has made little difference, and many analysts argue that the major objectives of the declaration would be met only if these were tackled first at the national level. UN population and development consultant Jerry Huguet even doubts the effectiveness of the much-touted ASEAN Charter. “Even in the declaration of 2007,” he argues, “ASEAN does not touch (on) the International Convention to Protect the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families of 1990. And it explicitly denies the right of undocumented workers.”
Full exposure to abuse
Malaysia itself is not a signatory to any major international human-rights treaties. Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) chairman Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman also admits that the agency that he heads is merely an advisory body and therefore has no executive power.
This leaves Malaysia’s foreign workers – about 2.1 million of whom are undocumented—exposed to all sorts of abuses. Complicating the problem is that there may even be more of these workers without legal papers soon as the international financial crisis puts a squeeze on this country’s industrial sector. Ma Nyo says that her life in Malaysia has become more “insecure” as her factory can no longer hire full-time workers from overseas. Many Burmese workers are also echoing the woes of Ma Khine Khine New who at the end of this April received only 300 ringgit or about $95 because she was able to work only four days a week. Laments Ma Khine Khine New, who left a child in the care of her extended family in Burma: “How can we send money home? There is little money left after repaying my debt and annual tax.”
And yet she could turn out to be among the more fortunate ones; the slowdown in production across Malaysia has led to some factories repatriating migrant workers even before their contracts ended.
By this March, Ma Zin Mar Htaik says that at the factory where she worked, foreigners like her were given the choice of either returning home or being “relocated” to another employer upon paying 1,200 ringgit (more than $380) as “levy”. Ma Zin Mar Htaik says she took the latter option, but allowed her original employer to keep her passport. That way, she says, she would be able to return to her former workplace once full production resumes there.
For all these, there are still those like Ma May Lwin Thaw who seem to consider Malaysia a good place to work. This is even though she, too, has had to give her passport to her employer for “safekeeping”. Ma May Lwin Thaw, who works as a cashier in a Thai restaurant in this city, says that she is afraid that she would lose her passport otherwise. Besides, she says, she has heard of stories of angry policemen tearing up migrants’ passports during surprise checks.
“I am happy here and my boss is better than any other”, says the 21-year-old who managed to complete two years of university in her homeland before trying her luck abroad. “(My boss) owns six restaurants and most of the employees he has hired are Burmese.” – With additional reporting by Wai Moe