Mistreated in Malaysia

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Migrant workers in Malaysia are routinely harassed by its policemen. But neither the employers nor the state machinery do anything to curb such treatment

About three weeks ago, Tika Rijal was walking out of his hostel—an apartment block where migrant workers are housed—in Subang Jaya, Malaysia, to buy a blanket to send home to Nepal. Around the corner, he ran into a policeman, who asked his name and then for his passport—a regular occurrence in Malaysia, where its police have the right to ask a civilian for his identification card. The citizens of the country carry what is called a Malaysian Card. For migrant workers, the equivalent is their passport, with a valid work permit stamped on the pages. But like 90 percent of the migrant labourers recruited in the country, Rijal’s passport is never with him. It is with the company he has been working at for the last 10 years, Domino’s Pizza. Instead of the passport, he usually carries a photocopy of the page that shows the work permit.

On that day, a photocopy would not have worked as a valid identification. Rijal’s work permit had expired and the company was in the process of renewing it. What Rijal had in his wallet instead was a letter from Domino’s Pizza stating the renewal process. But the policeman would not accept it as a legal document that allowed Rijal to stay in the country. The policemen were so notorious in their refusal to accept any paper, including passports, as proof of identification that Rijal knew what was being asked of him: a trip to the jail or whatever Ringgits he had on him. The bargaining began. The policeman asked for 200 Ringgits. Rijal used his fluency in Malay to bring the bribe amount down to 50 Ringgits. In the end, the policeman settled for 50.

Rijal was actually lucky to have walked away with paying just 50 Ringgits. Some migrant workers have had to pay all that that was in their pockets and more, even when they had their passports, not just the photocopies, with them. Only a week ago, a Bangladeshi migrant, Shohal Mahmud, was taken aside by a policeman in Kuala Lumpur and asked to pay 600 Ringgits. An area supervisor of Vision Mission Cleaning Pvt. Ltd, Mahmud had his passport with him—in fact, he and the nine other migrant workers in his company have always had their passports returned to them, an exceptional case in the country. But when a policeman wants money, he wants it. Mahmud did not just hand over all he had—180 Ringgits—but had to also call up his friend and pay the rest of the amount.

“It’s not the passport and not even the money the police are after,” says Rijal. “They just want to harass us.”

The harassment is so rampant that the migrant workers have learned to live with it. They have no other options. In a country where the system is rigged to strip a migrant worker of his power, the Malaysian police, patrolling the streets, benefit from it. They know how vulnerable the migrant workers are and that the policemen will have to bear no consequences if they just pull one of the migrants to the side and take whatever he has—from money and mobile phones to a few sticks of cigarettes. They know where the migrant workers work, where they live, when their payday is and they plan their moves accordingly.

Liva Sreedharan of Tenaganita, a non-government organisation that works for the rights of migrant workers in Malaysia, says that the money the police collect often goes to a fund, which the police divide among themselves at the end of a month. A brief encounter with a migrant worker contributes to this coffer. More importantly, it leaves the policeman feeling powerful, while the other walks away with his pride hurt and dignity shattered, with yet another reminder that the migrant workers belong at the bottom rung of the ladder.

The leash

The possibilities of a migrant’s getting exploited by the police are in play from the day a migrant worker steps on Malaysian soil, when his employer confiscates his passport, first in the name of issuing a work permit and later for safekeeping purposes. According to the Passport Act of 1966, any foreigner working in Malaysia has the right to keep his passport with him. The employer could take the passport, with the migrant worker’s written permission, to get the work permit stamped from the Immigration Department, but he has to return it to the passport holder as soon as the paperwork is done, unless the migrant worker requests, in a letter, that the employer keep the passport for safekeeping.

In reality, the employers almost always seize the passports, because they don’t want the workers taking up better opportunities elsewhere. According to the Immigration Department of Malaysia, around 2.25 million work permits were issued in 2013, more than 385,000 of which were for Nepalis. According to labour experts’ estimates, there are as many migrant workers who are undocumented, most of them working for below the minimum wage (900 Ringgits in peninsular Malaysia) set by the Malaysian government. Almost all have handed over their passports to their employers. A migrant worker could use his right and ask for the passport to be returned, but the prices are hefty, both literally and figuratively. In return for the passport, most companies demand a fee in thousands of Ringgits. Krishna Bastakoti, who works as a security guard in the country, has had enough and now wants to return to Nepal, but his company will not return his passport unless he pays 8,000 Ringgits.

Even if a migrant worker manages to somehow pay the fees demanded, there is always the risk that the company will terminate the contract, which it can whenever it wants, without consulting the worker. The Malaysian government has given the employers the sole right to unilaterally issue, renew and revoke the contract. Once the contract is terminated, a migrant worker becomes undocumented, and with it comes more hassles and harassment and the possibility of deportation after spending months in detention camps. Most migrant workers, who have incurred debts to get to Malaysia, cannot afford to be sent back to their home countries. The migrant worker, then, reluctantly allows the company to keep the passport. (In Bastakoti’s case, he has decided to get a temporary passport from the Nepali embassy in Malaysia and fly back to Nepal, leaving his passport with the security company.)

“The employers will never admit it, but keeping the passports is their way of putting the migrant workers on a leash,” says Mohammad Harun Al Rashid, regional coordinator at the Coordination of Action Research on AIDS and Mobility, Asia.

And while restrained by that leash, migrant workers become an easy prey for the police personnel.

Kads and passes

But even the minority of migrant workers who get to keep their passports with them still end up paying bribes to the police. If the policeman does not receive the amount he wants, he can easily take the worker to the police station and charge him with illegal entry and forgery of passports or detain him as a suspect of a crime. Once the charge sheet is filed, the migrant worker can expect to spend days and weeks in jail, until his employer comes to rescue him. If the worker is undocumented, he will spend around three to four months in jail until the case reaches the labour court, after which he will spend another three to four months in a detention camp, before being deported to his home country.

“If a policeman really wanted to check the validity of the work permit, he could do so with a click of a mouse—the Immigration Department is that good with record keeping—but they just want to harass the immigrants,” says Harun, who migrated from Bangladesh on a student visa around a decade ago. The policeman could also just send a message to a phone number and immediately check the validity of a migrant’s documents.

Migrant workers who are recruited by outsourcing agents are equally vulnerable. Their work permits state the name of the outsourcing agents as their employers and not the company they work for, say, 7-Eleven, a convenience-store chain. If a policeman finds such a worker working at a 7-Eleven outlet, he points to the discrepancy between the name of the employer on the work permit and the place he is employed at to extract money from the worker. And sometimes, if the policeman finds a migrant worker roaming around in a state other than the one written on the work permit, he uses it as another excuse to extort some money. Even refugees who carry refugee cards issued by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees are not spared.

“We’ve heard cases of the police tearing apart the refugee cards as worthless sheets of paper,” says Sreedharan.

Equally worthless was the Jalan Kad (mobility card), or its newer version, the I-Kad (immigration card), issued by the Malaysian government until 2009. The Jalan card clearly had the expiry date of the work permit written on it, and the I-card had the phone number anyone could sms to receive the status on the work permit. In 2011, the Malaysian government replaced the I-Kad with an I-pass, which contained a barcode and biometric information of the card holder, but issued them first to ‘expats’, defined as foreign workers who hold mid- to high-level professional/technical posts. The I-passes were to work as a substitute to passports for identification purposes. Recently, however, the government has stopped issuing them altogether, for reasons not disclosed. Migrant workers, however, are not hopeful that the issuance of the I-passes, once it resumes, will spare them the harassment from police. “When the police ask for an identification card, they do not do so as law enforcers, but for money and to show how powerful they are,” says Mahmud.

Mute spectators

Since with or without the passport, a migrant worker is vulnerable to police harassment, the workers have devised their own ways to avoid the police as much as possible. Most usually carry no more than 10 Ringgits in their pockets. It is known that some policemen ask the migrant workers to use the ATM card and withdraw money, but migrant workers say that happens rarely. The other protective measures include carrying simple phones; fancy ones only invite temptations. Learning Malay is a must, as it helps to negotiate better. Most migrant workers have also realised that it is safer to walk in groups and in streets that are well-lit and full of activities. Some even receive help from their employers. Sreedharan recounts a scene she witnessed, where the employer paid a policeman to stop him from harassing hi workers. And Rijal has learned to avoid the corner where he was recently picked on.

The Nepali Embassy in Malaysia is aware of the police harassment Nepali migrant workers face. So is the Malaysian government. Time and again, the embassy has written official letters to the Home Ministry of Malaysia (under which is the Immigration Department), asking it to look into the matter of passport seizure and problems such as the police harassment. So far, the Nepali Embassy has had no answers other than assurances.

“The power structure that you see in society, on the streets, is reflected in international relations as well,” says Niranjan Man Singh Basnyat, the Nepali Ambassador to Malaysia.

Without a memorandum of understanding signed with the Malaysian government, and with Nepal unable to absorb the hundreds of thousands of youths it has sent to work in Malaysia, the Nepali state is powerless to hold the Malaysian government accountable for the exploitation of its migrant labourers. Seizure of a passport is a crime against the sovereign nation that issues the passport; so is racial profiling under international laws. But Nepal and other labour-sending countries have had to become mute spectators to gross violations of human rights in Malaysia. The migrant workers do not even receive adequate support from the Malaysian mainstream media, as freedom of speech is heavily curtailed in the country and reporters cannot write freely about the plight of the migrant workers.

Malaysia, which calls itself a democracy whose economic growth attracts millions of migrant workers, needs to amend its ways, says Harun. By 2020, it wants to graduate to the status of a developed country. But skyscrapers and a per capita income of tens of thousands of US Dollars alone do not make a country developed. They have to understand that migrant workers are human beings too. And that the migrant workers are as much the drivers of its economy as any of the expats, white-collar workers and the members of the business and political class.

(Originally published in The Kathmandu Post, Nepal)