Migrants in Malaysia

A consideration of the meaning of International Migrants Day as we observe International Migrants Day today, amidst observing stories of migrant workers abused by employers and agents with no justice yet in sight.

Someone once told me, “The world is filled with assholes. Well, at least 90% of it.”

It’s a strong statement, but believe it or not I think it’s close to the truth. Boy, what a scary thought that is.

Its International Migrants Day today. Personally, I don’t know what that means except that the many Indonesian migrant workers I met yesterday do not know or even care that a day has been dedicated to them. There is no reason for any celebration whatsoever.

What do you think are the odds of a migrant domestic worker being employed by an asshole?

The story of Megawati – kicked, hit with a vase, and scalded with boiling water

Megawati, a 22 year old Indonesian girl who came to Malaysia with hundreds of thousands of others in search of a better life.

“How long have you worked here?” I asked her.

“Four months,” she said shyly.

“So, is it a bad majikan (employer) or agent which caused you to end up here?”

I was curious what brought her to the shelter at the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. More than 100 Indonesian women and children are being sheltered at the embassy while waiting to be deported home due to the absence of work permit. In fact, they wouldn’t have overstayed in Malaysia if they had their passports.

The many women I talked to gave the same stories. They are there because their employers or agents had held them and their passports hostage after their contracts expire. They are there because they managed to escape. Many of them have friends or know someone still being detained illegally by their employers or agents.

These are not just the horror stories.

Megawati continued to tell me that her employer is a bachelor who hired two maids. She was one of them. God only knows why a bachelor needed two domestic workers.

After only working for 3 days, her employer started to abuse her.

“How did he abuse you?” I asked her solemnly.

“He kicked me in the stomach,” she said reluctantly in the beginning. “Sometimes, he hit me on the head with a vase. He also splashed me with boiling water.” (emphasis by LB)

I gritted my teeth as I listened to her. She must have told this story a million times because she said it with such an even tone. For those who are not there to see the scars on her arms, would have thought she had rehearsed her story just to gain sympathy.

I held her right arm and inspected the clean but unnatural discoloration. “This looks old,” I said.

“But when she arrived [here], it was filled with pus,” a woman sitting beside her intervened immediately. She must have thought I didn’t believe Megawati.

“Show her. Show her.” The woman encouraged Megawati.

Megawati’s hands went up to the top buttons of her vermillion red shirt with batik printed collar. As she was unbuttoning her top, she told me that she has burn marks all over her chest.

“Its OK. I believe you,” I said while I held her hands to stop her from having to undress in front of me just to prove the abuse she had suffered.

“Why do you think your employer did this to you?” I asked.

“Because I made mistakes. Whenever I made a mistake, he would get angry.”

“Did he sexually abuse you?” I had to ask.

“No,” Megawati answered. I was not convinced.

A few seconds later, Megawati told me that her employer made the other maid cut herself up with a knife.

It seems that once the agent found out the unmentionable acts committed by the employer, she was immediately sent to the shelter. The police was notified and her case is still under investigation.

When I asked Megawati whether her parents know what has happened to her here, she told me no. When I asked her whether she would ever tell them, that was when tears started to well up in her eyes. In a croaky voice, she said, “I would never tell them. They’re old. I don’t want them to suffer.”

Dayanti – cheated off salary by agent

Not everyone has a good agent like Megawati. Often than not, they are probably one of the worst perpetrators when it comes to migrant rights.

Dayanti told me that her passport is being detained by her agent. On top of that, she has given RM1,200 to the agent in return for the promise of going home safely at the end of her contract. Until today, she’s still stuck in Malaysia. She has not received her salary for five months and mean time, her agent has also borrowed RM1,760 from her. In total, she has paid a huge price for working in Malaysia for 2 years.

Before arriving at the shelter, Dayanti was detained by the agent with 3 other Indonesian women. They were forced to work at the agent’s house without being paid. In legal terms, this is considered as forced slavery. Like some of the tough ones, she escaped and ended up at the shelter. The other two are too afraid to escape and are still being held hostage until today.

What does the embassy do?

According to Dayanti, the embassy is trying to work things out with the agent. When I asked the Labour Attache what does working out with the agent entail? He said they try to solve the problem diplomatically. If the agent doesn’t cooperate, they will issue a single passage pass to the women so that they can return home.

What about cases of abuse?

The Labour Attache said that they will report this to the police. Many cases are being solved through mediation. This means, if the employers cooperate and agree to offer compensation (usually two months pay), they won’t press any criminal charges. It seems that most cases are being solved this way.

One woman wept as soon as she talked about her 4-year old daughter in East Java, whom she hasn’t seen for a long time. “I want to go home because I miss my daughter so much,” she said with tears streaming down her cheeks.

Others told of the stories of being fed a meager meal a day and some, were raped.

Not all stories were sad. Dayanti, for instance, laughed as she told me how she tricked her agent into believing her when she said she was going to feed the cat, when in effect, was a decoy for her great escape. Perhaps her agent’s ironic ability to love an animal has helped save her life. Perhaps, that’s why she laughed.

International Migrants Day will mean something when these assholes are brought to justice. After all, they’re a waste of space in this world.

LoyarBurok Note: All names have been changed to protect the identities of the women


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Posts by Lim Ka Ea

Ka Ea used to be a globe trotter. She has lived in Timor Leste and Afghanistan while working as a civic education and human rights officers for the United Nations. She then tried to be a full time housewife in Ethiopia and Cambodia but failed miserably. These days, Ka Ea spends most of her time at the Pusat Rakyat LoyarBurok, Ananda Bhavan and Hulu Langat. When she's not there, she can be found lying on the couch at home with two of her best friends watching So You Think You Can Dance. Among the trio, only one can really dance.

Posted on 18 December 2009. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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2 Responses to Migrants in Malaysia

  1. M. Goh

    I wonder if having a law on minimum salary will solve this problem of modern-day slavery in Malaysia?

  2. Kris

    Sad but true Ka Ea, the world at least here in Malaysia seems to have a preponderance of assholes. And I am using the term with equal emphasis on both genders….