Malaysia NRI, Abused Sikh Workers Left High and Dry


KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 6, 2004
Baradan Kuppusamy

Darshan Singh's story is all too familiar for many human rights activists. He was recruited from the Indian state of Punjab to work in a Malaysian company. But things soon turned nasty when the labour recruiter pocketed all his salary, housed him in a crammed place, fed him flour and lentils and went further to abuse and torture him.

The 29-year-old Darshan, a practising Sikh, sold his motorcycle, all of his wife's few and precious jewellery and borrowed about 2,200 U.S. dollars from a loan shark to buy an air ticket to Malaysia. The air ticket price also included a 'visa and agents' fee'. All this was done on the promises of a soft-spoken Punjabi-speaking woman who acted as the labour recruiter.

The labour recruiter had promised Darshan a ''safe and secure'' job laying electrical cables and a guaranteed 1,500 ringgit (395 U.S. dollars) a month, with food and lodging thrown in together with medical benefits.

He hoped to work for three years and to return home with enough hard cash to pay off the loan, buy his wife new jewellery, get himself a new motorcycle and hopefully have enough left to start a small business in his village in Punjab.

Like other migrant workers, Darshan's dream was dashed the day he landed at the spanking new billion dollar Kuala Lumpur International Airport with 17 other workers that the agent had recruited from the Indian state.

Their passports and remaining cash they had were taken away; the terms of their work contract were altered and they were 'sold off' to another employer.

Since arriving in Malaysia, Darshan and the others have suffered nothing but misery. Today their home is a Sikh temple in the city that has been kind enough to give them temporary refuge.

''We worked hard but were not paid the promised wages since the day we arrived...we were physically abused. Today we have nothing but the clothes we wear, no passports, no money, no jobs and no future,'' Darshan told IPS.

''All our dreams are shattered,'' he said. ''We have huge debts back home and can't go back unless we get work here, save money and return home to pay up.''

Under the circumstances such a possibility remains a distant dream.

Darshan is a Sikh and also feels humiliated that he was forced to discard his turban and cut his hair short on the grounds that he had to wear a safety helmet in his job.

''I was deeply humiliated,'' Darshan said. Two other Sikhs had their hair cut too. According to the workers they were warned that if they wore turbans again they would lose their job.

On Wednesday Darshan and the 17 workers related their plight to the National Human Rights Commission or SUHAKAM - - a government funded human rights body with only an advisory role to the authorities.

SUHAKAM commissioners Simon Sipaun and Jamaludin Othman, who heard their stories, were staggered by the inhumanity inflicted on these Sikh workers.

''I cannot understand how one human being can treat another so cruelly and inhumanely....theirs is a sad story and I wonder how the employer would feel if the roles were reversed,'' Sipaun told a press conference.

''We will investigate the matter,'' he said.

The workers were taken to see SUHAKAM by Aegile Fernandez, program co-coordinator of TENAGANITA or Women's Force -- a leading human rights NGO that champions the rights of migrant workers and women in vulnerable situations.

The workers related how they were crowded into a room with only one fan and many slept on the floor. ''We had rice and dhal (lentils) for food and were paid130 ringgit (34 U.S. dollars) each for the three months of work we had done,'' one of the workers said.

''We were hungry most of the time,'' said another worker.

One day in mid July, Fernandez said, the 18 workers walked out of their jobs and made their way to the Indian High Commission seeking help. They were also referred to TENAGANITA.

''The workers were abused, tortured, humiliated and exploited by the agents and contractors,'' said Fernandez who urged firm police action against the perpetrators.

Fernandez told IPS TENAGANITA would also lodge reports with the International Labour Organisation and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Rights of Migrant Workers to seek justice and publicise the plight of migrant workers in Malaysia.

''This is a classic case of abuse by employers who took the workers wages, housed them in a crammed place, gave them flour and dhal as food and abused and humiliated them,'' Fernandez said.

''This is fraudulent recruitment made on false promises and tantamount to trafficking of people for labour,'' she said. ''It is in direct violation of the U.N. Optional Protocol against Trafficking and Smuggling of Persons.''

''The government must take this abuse seriously and right the wrong,'' she said, adding that forcing Sikhs to crop their hair is ''deeply humiliating'' and tantamount to torture.

She also said agents, contractors and employers have come to believe that they would not be punished for abusing and maltreating migrant workers.

''Very few employers have ever been punished,'' she said.

Human rights NGOs having seen the same pattern of abuse of migrant workers over and over again have demanded for a total revamp of the entire employment system but without much success. Fernandez said there are three factors why such migrant workers persist.

One, corruption backed with a thriving number of recruiting agencies in the Asian region, makes it easy to bring people through illegal means.

Second, many employers withhold the passports and other documents of their migrant employees. During raids when the migrant is forced to leave his work, the documents are left behind. Without proper papers, the migrant becomes undocumented.

Third, many employers themselves ''like to keep'' undocumented workers because the former ''don't have to spend much money''.