KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 6, 2004
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
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
''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
''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
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
''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''.