Deep in the shadow economy, illegal workers live with abuse, torture

File picture shows migrant workers spending their off day in Kuala Lumpur on June 16, 2018. ― Picture by Miera Zulyana
File picture shows migrant workers spending their off day in Kuala Lumpur on June 16, 2018. ― Picture by Miera Zulyana

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 3 — Late last year, 21-year-old Cambodian domestic worker Nita (not her real name) was raped by her employer. It happened in her room in a single-storey house in one of Klang’s most remote districts, where her screams reached no one.

The assault left her deeply traumatised but Nita was too afraid to ask for help. She is an illegal alien in a foreign land who, like many before her, paid a hefty fee to unscrupulous hiring agents promising stable employment in the thriving city of Kuala Lumpur.

So Nita continued to work for her rapist and his family for a long tortuous year, doing laborious work for long hours and often fed with little food. On her rest days, she was prohibited from leaving the house.

“She was only allowed to eat vegetables as she watched the family members eat healthy meals,” said Irene Xavier, a labour activist with Sahabat Wanita, a Selangor-based migrant workers rights group who helped the Cambodian escape.

Fearing she would be violated again, Nita often trembled in her sleep. She hoped the nightmare would end but that dreaded moment came again when her rapist, drunk, asked her for sex and when she declined, Nita was made to strip naked and dance before him.

She wept and complied.

Nita’s story provides a window into the dire conditions of illegal workers in the informal economy, where harrowing stories of abuse by employers are rife and employment mirrors that of colonialism’s slave-labourers. They happen because rights and social protection are close to non-existent.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines the informal economy as “activities that are, in law or practice, not covered or insufficiently covered by formal arrangements”, which refers to working people largely excluded from regulations and protections in the standard employment system.

As a result, these labourers are left out from policy considerations because their employment often goes unregistered or are omitted from national statistics, placing them outside the reach of social protection or labour laws.

And because their employment status is ambiguous, it further reduces what limited protection they have under the law, more so for the thousands of migrant workers who came here without legal papers.

“Most of these cases go unreported because they can’t go to the police or to anyone as they are scared they would be detained,” Xavier said.

Modern-day slavery

Over one million workers in Malaysia were employed informally just last year alone, according to a Department of Statistics Malaysia survey that covered both citizens and migrants in rural and urban areas. The numbers continue to grow at 5.1 per cent average annually. 

Cleaners, restaurant or domestic workers make up a large chunk of the shadow economy, and they are typically women from poor countries like Cambodia or Indonesia trafficked or cheated into coming to Malaysia by local and foreign hiring syndicates, often with the complicity of corrupt local officials.

And there is a common theme among testimonies of migrants who end up duped. They paid hiring agents large sums of money, close to two thousand ringgit, in return for working visas and secure employment, usually domestic workers or waitresses, only to end up with no jobs at all upon arrival.

So instead they are forced take up work with employers who saw their plight as an opportunity to bind them to perpetual and cheap labour.

Worst, the lack of legal protection for people with illegal status meant they were open to abuse. News of horrendous tortures of domestic workers were common in the past, but they usually constitute just a fraction of abuse cases taking place throughout the sector.

And even in the severest cases of maltreatment, the public outcry was so mild it gave the government little incentive to look into the root cause of the problem and find genuine solutions.

For the most part, abuse cases tend to go unreported because illegal migrant workers either have little awareness or feel they are without rights altogether, a point raised by the ILO in a 2002 report on the informal economy.

“Their employment status may be ambiguous ― further reinforcing their limited protection under the law,” the report read.

“They are often unorganised, and for this and other reasons they are often unable to articulate their rights.”

Xavier agreed, saying testimonies from complaints the organisation had received showed the majority of them had internalised their sufferings because they felt they were powerless as illegal aliens.

“In many cases we received, even if they do go [lodge a report], they don’t feel they would get justice because they see themselves as illegals,” she said.

“So they accept their suffering as their fate.”

State-endorsed xenophobia?

In Nita’s case it took friends months to convince her to contact Sahabat Wanita, who eventually helped her escape her rapist owing to intervention from the Labour Department. If not for NGOs like Xavier’s, the Cambodian would have remained with her abuser.

“She told us she did know she could do something. She thought because she has no legal status, she is powerless,” the activist said.

Migrant workers are among the most under-represented marginal groups in the country, and they carry a third-class status stemming partially from the negative depiction of these communities as economic vagrants who push locals out of jobs and depress wages.

Sahabat Wanita and other similar organisations fighting for a comprehensive migrant worker policy said this caricature of migrant workers, encouraged even by supposedly reform-minded leaders of the Pakatan Harapan administration, helps enable their exploitation.

For example, some PH leaders made Bangladeshis the bogeyman when it alleged in 2013 that its political rivals Barisan Nasional wanted to transport over 40,000 of them here to help keep the ruling coalition in power at the 13th general election.

As the campaign trail heated up, party workers started using xenophobic terms like “Banglas” loosely in campaign messages, a move which inadvertently sparked a backlash against Bangladeshis already working here.

This came at a time when migrant workers were already subject to veiled racial abuses by state-owned media, particularly the Malay papers, that ostensibly attempted to use foreigners as scapegoats for the government’s failure to address structural weaknesses like stagnant salaries and weak growth.

Hence migrant workers’ only chance for any legal recourse is to turn to NGOs like Sahabat Wanita, but these organisations have little clout or resources to provide long-term remedies, especially without support from an apathetic public, press or even trade union leaders.

And this indifference, stressed Sahabat Wanita executive director Suguna Papachan, has until today remained the biggest stumbling block to a much-needed solidarity between local and migrant workers, unions and civil societies.

This has kept the marginalised class divided and disorganised, to the benefit of exploitative employers.

“Yes,” the activist replied when asked if she saw public apathy as abetting the abuses.

“The public must have more awareness and the media must do their part to create this awareness but when we try to highlight these issues we get totally ignored,” she added.

Yet both Xavier and Suguna remain hopeful of change. The PH government recently established a high-powered committee to look into all issues relating to migrant workers’ issues, and there is optimism that legal and social protections for labourers would be discussed.

Brutal raids

But they were cautious in their optimism. Next to the committee’s formation, they said there has been little progress in efforts to formulate a comprehensive policy to ensure protection for migrant or informal workers.

The authorities have continued to resort to brutal tactics by conducting indiscriminate raids against illegal migrants just as recent as two months ago, Suguna noted, adding that violence is often deployed in the process and with virtual impunity.

Officials have also been found to cite regulations when making arrests. Illegal migrants are usually detained for long periods without legal recourse and kept in holding centres under deplorable conditions where reports of abuses, including rape and physical tortures, have repeatedly surfaced.

“So let’s see what the committee has to offer,” the Sahabat Wanita activist said.

The current Minister of Human Resources M. Kulasegaran told Malay Mail at the Asean Labour Minister Conference here recently that the new administration is amending up to eight labour laws with the aim of extending protection to migrant workers.

The amendments are expected to dovetail with the policy on migrant workers to be prepared by the joint committee, expected to be finalised by the first quarter of next year.

“With the amendments protection will be given to migrant workers,” he said.

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