About a month ago I was with a group of young people who witnessed a tragic incident involving an Indonesian worker who collapsed on the job possibly from a stroke and suffered partial paralysis. She was a food stall worker at (or off, depending on who you talk to) the campus of a local private university. The woman received no immediate medical attention and was in fact left unattended for more than four hours, including by her employer who was at the scene throughout.
I published a post on my blog about what happened and received feedback from the university as well as Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, Deputy Minister of Higher Education, who was very concerned about the case. I consulted NGO friends regarding the case but nothing more could be done as the worker was sent back to Indonesia soon after being discharged from hospital. She did not receive any legal representation to help ensure she was duly compensated.
Just a couple of weeks after the incident I found myself sitting in an alleyway overlooking the great mountains of North Vietnam in serious conversation with a manager of a bed-&-breakfast. During this conversation he showed me some terrible scars on his hand and his deformed foot. Speaking in Malay, the Vietnamese man told me his fingers, hand and foot were sliced in an accident at a plywood factory in Penang. Not too long ago he was recruited by a Vietnamese agent who said Malaysian employers had promised a decent job in Malaysia. He arrived at the LCC Terminal in Kuala Lumpur only to be ushered to a “holding area” where he was suddenly grouped with other foreigners, under the watchful eyes of our Immigration officers, and taken away to Penang without much explanation much less a work contract. In short, he had been duped and found himself completely unprotected by the law.
“Were you not wearing boots? Were you not wearing heavy-duty gloves?” I asked. “There were none,” he said. He told me he also worked overtime to earn a mere RM18 a day. Workers in his factory had no choice because they had to pay for their own meals.
Following the accident he was hospitalised for a month and made to feel grateful that his employer was paying for his medical expenses. He would discover later that his salary for that month was suspended due to his unfortunate absence. He continued to work thereafter only to make enough to purchase a flight back to his homeland. At this point he pulled out his wallet and showed me a picture of the bodhisattva, Kuan Yin.
“I cannot forgive, I cannot forget, but I can make sure I do not treat my own workers here the way I was treated in Malaysia,” he said. The only thing I could do then was to apologise profusely for how my countrymen had treated him.
Upon arriving home from that trip I heard from yet another Indonesian worker that her uncle, who was working at a construction site, had died after getting electrocuted while handling a machine. Arrangements were made to send his body home to Indonesia. Whether the family of the deceased will be compensated fairly, or compensated at all, remains a question. Going by the first case mentioned above, any compensation is contingent on an individual employer’s generosity.
The cases mentioned are not isolated incidents that have only occurred recently. Exploitation of foreign workers has for many years been an integral part of how we do business here in Malaysia. For this reason I fully support the newly launched Worker’s Manifesto by the Malaysian Workers Network.