Endless Deception: Undocumented Status Reinforces Workers’ Woes

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Some hills in the Genting Highland look like the most remote part of Malaysia. Cut off from electricity and good transportation facilities, these desolate hills are home to Nepali migrants, mainly undocumented workers, who work as farmhands to eke out a living. Forty-one-year-old Top Chalami is one such worker. A permanent resident of Daga-Tumdada in Baglung district, Chalami has not returned home for sixteen years. The only reason he is stuck in Malaysia – his illegal status.

Like Chalami, thousands of Nepalese workers are languishing in Malaysia without identity papers. They are forced to work as farmhands in extremely desolate areas, hundreds of kilometers away from bustling cities, just to keep alive. Many other undocumented Nepalese working in big and medium-size companies in Malaysia face a similar predicament.  

There are tens of thousands of Nepalese like Chalami in Malaysia who were rendered illegal due to lack of passports or valid visa. According to Nepal’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur, there are an estimated 700,000 Nepalese in Malaysia. Malaysian government’s official record, however, shows that there are 485000 Nepali workers in the country.

This means around 200,000 Nepalese who are unaccounted for could be working in Malaysia without legal status. On the last week of Ashad when Malaysian authorities intensified the crackdown on illegal workers many Nepalese were forced to go into hiding in dense forests of palm trees. Palm trees are used to extract oil.

According to Santosh Chauhan, a Nepali national who works in a resort in Desharu beach of Joharbaru in Malaysia, many Nepalese survived on water while in hiding.

“Illegal workers are often duped by their agents, owners of the companies they work for or even by their own friends,” Chauhan said while sharing the stories of undocumented Nepali workers living in Malaysia.

Rabilal Adhikari, Chairman of Nepali Labor’s Unity Center, said that many Nepalese become illegal due to promises of agents. Many workers, Adhikari said, come to Malaysia paying an exorbitant high price in hope of getting lucrative jobs. But they feel cheated when they do not get work, wages and facilities the agents promised in Nepal.

Adhikari said, “The workers leave their work when they realize that their hard-earned saving is not enough to pay back the loan they borrowed from local moneylenders while coming to Malaysia.”

Since most of the employers in Malaysia keep workers’ passport with them, many workers are robbed of their identity when they run away. Foreign workers without identity often become the victim of exploitation and abuse.

Losing one’s passport is an easy way to get trapped—a situation where a worker can neither return home nor get jobs that pay well. Illegal workers can be found almost everywhere in Malaysia; in the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur, in Penang, Johor Baru, Genting Highland and Cameroon Highland.

Despite willing to return home, many Nepalese cannot leave Malaysia because of loans from landlords. Many are compelled to spend years with the fragile hope that they would one day make enough money to free their family from the debt trap.

Durga Neupane, a Nepali worker who has been working in a paper factory in Joharbaru of Malaysia for last four years, is missing his home. But he lacks money he needs to buy his freedom. Poor knowledge of Malay and inaccessible government services put such workers at the mercy of cunning agents who process documents to acquire exit visas. Besides paying fines to the Malaysian government, workers have to pay exorbitant fees to these agents for their service.

Due to his illegal status, Neupane has been denied insurance, healthcare, and other facilities by his employer. Neupane says he is not in a position to leave the company as it may expose him to police arrest and possible deportation.

“I know I am not getting wages I deserve. I cannot do overtime. I have little choice but to continue working here,” said Neupane.

In Malaysia, most workers have to work five days a week. But Neupane hardly gets a day off. Furthermore, there are no set working hours for him. The company’s manager, according to Neupane, decides how many hours he has to work.

“My situation is just like that of a bonded laborer. I am neither in a position to return home nor earn enough working here,” said Neupane. Most undocumented Nepali workers face a similar predicament; they are not in a position to earn or leave Malaysia empty-handed.

An official at Nepal’s embassy in Malaysia claims that around 75 percent of Nepali migrants become illegal at some point of their two-year work tenure. Lack of reliable data makes it extremely hard to gauge the exact number of undocumented Nepalese workers in Malaysia.

Nepal embassy’s estimate of undocumented workers is based on the number of applications it received from such workers for travel documents, a paper which undocumented workers use as passports to acquire exit visas in the immigration.  According to Nepal’s embassy, it issued travel passes to around 100,043 Nepalese in the last three years. A total of 6683 Nepalese workers acquired travel documents in past four months since Baishak. In other words, the embassy issues around 55 travel documents on an average each day. When Malaysian authorities intensified the crackdown on companies employing illegal workers, up to 400 Nepalese were in various detention camps across Malaysia. There are 225 Nepali workers in detention camps at present.

Malaysian companies are tempted to hire such workers as they are cheaper than documented workers. Hiring these workers put companies under no obligation to pay the levy to the government or abide by labor laws which prescribe mandatory insurance, healthcare, and other facilities to workers. Many companies prefer their workers’ undocumented status by not extending their tenure or allowing them to return home.

Ram Nibas Kori, who hails from Bijuwa of Nawalparasi district in Nepal, is one such worker who was rendered undocumented by his company. Kori, who arrived in Malaysia four years ago, has been working without legal status for the last one year. Kori, who works in a supermarket in Tilok, wanted to return home soon after the expiry of his contract with his employer. Instead of giving him permission, the company confiscated his passport and forced him to continue the job. This also prevented him from leaving the job.

“I am in a difficult situation,” said Kori. Without a passport, workers like Kori are forced to seek the assistance of the agent to return home or find new jobs.

Like Chalami, Rajan Thapa of Gulmi is also working as a farmhand in Genting Highland for last fifteen years, thanks to the false promise of his agent. Thapa was 21 years old while coming to Malaysia. He initially worked with a company which used to manufacture electronic products. Thapa was forced to leave the company after the Malaysian health authority declared him unfit for work citing some medical defect. He had received a clearance certificate in Nepal.

As an undocumented worker in a foreign land, life became a nightmare for Thapa. He worked as a security guard at a casino for the first few months. Since he was not getting the promised facilities and working under constant risk of police arrest, Thapa eventually moved to Genting Highland to work as a farmhand. Chalami and Thapa both have compelling stories about hardship and despair. There is no government agency to listen to their stories, or any end.

Kiran Bajgain has long experience of working in Malaysia without legal status. He works as a driver in Kuala Lumpur. Bajgain would not have lost his legal status had he not become a victim of his agent’s false promises. After arriving in Malaysia in 2005, Kiran started working in a furniture shop. He ditched the job after working for 49 days. The work was harder than he expected and the earnings low. Kiran has done all kinds of work since 2005, all the while dodging law enforcement agencies.

Avoiding police arrest is easier said than done. Once during a sudden police raid, Kiran had entered a sewer to avoid arrest.

“I walked around a kilometer inside the sewerage tunnel and avoided arrest. Police arrested many friends at that time”. Kiran said that all undocumented workers face similar hardships.

“Undocumented workers are forced to toil extra hard due to exploitative companies and agents,” said Kiran.

Thousands of undocumented workers like Kori and Thapa cannot openly access basic healthcare and remit their money to their families through formal channels.

Jay Jay Denis, a consultant for the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said the Malaysian government is apathetic and indifferent towards widespread exploitation of workers. In one instance, Dennis said that a company employing 270 workers was keeping them in 20 containers.

“Workers are not even getting access to clean food, water and sanitation facilities let alone good wage. This is extreme exploitation of workers,” said Denis.

Dennis said that most of the employers in Malaysia confiscate workers’ passports although it’s against law to hold passports. The practice of holding passport, Dennis said, is one reason why workers become undocumented.

“This long chapter of workers’ exploitation will not end until there is a government to government agreement,” said Denis.

In its new report on Nepalese migrants titled Turning People into Profit, Amnesty International has also documented cases of forced labour, trafficking alongside other new revelations on conditions of Nepali workers in Malaysia.

“Migrants who are trying to find work or borrow money from friends to return home instead become vulnerable to arrest, imprisonment or trial on immigration related charges.”

Adrian Pereira, executive President of North-South Initiative, an organization working for migrants’ rights, said that illegal workers are deprived of basic human rights despite compelled to do risky works. Why is it happening? Because, according to Pereira, illegal workers are providing opportunities for companies that prefer cheap labour and layers of agents who are using migrants to earn money.

“Workers are easily trapped since the government mechanism that regulates the industry is weak compared to agents,” said Pereira.

In Ashad (June/July) this year, the Malaysian government introduced rehiring program to legalize undocumented migrants. Though the program gave a rare opportunity to illegal migrants to change their status, only 20 percent of illegal workers benefitted from the legalization program. The leader of main opposition party in the Malaysian parliament later described it as a completely “ineffective program” introduced to collect exorbitant fees from illegal workers. The rehiring program was the third major initiative taken by the Malaysian government to legalize workers since 2010. These programs largely failed to decrease the number of illegal workers.

“Rehiring program is a risky step taken by the government to reduce the number of undocumented migrant workers,” said Pereira.

Before the rehiring program, Malaysia had introduced Three P and Six P programs targeting to flush out undocumented migrants. But neither of the two programs produced desired results particularly due to small enterprises that heavily rely on cheap undocumented workers and agents who supply such workers to their clients. Other factors including ineffective information dissemination and migrants’ lack of faith on the legalization program played an equally big role in discouraging Nepalese to benefit from these programs. Chalami wasn’t even aware of the legalization programs.

“Many aren’t aware of the programs. Some migrants received the news once the deadline expired,” said Chalami.

Khagendra Neupane, Chairman of Malaysia chapter of Non-Resident Nepali Association, said that illegal migrants work in precarious conditions. He said that workers are tempted to become undocumented in hope of better income.

“Some workers have been cheated by agents. Whatever the case, nearly all undocumented migrants face a similar plight,” said Neupane.

(Originally published in the Kantipur, Nepal.)

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