Despite many poignant stories of exploitation and helplessness of migrant workers in Malaysia, desperate Nepalis keep coming here for employment that they do not have in their Himalayan homeland.
Their list of woes is endless: breach of contracts, being forced to work overtime, being paid below minimum wage, no sick leave, no insurance and lack of medical benefits.
“All of us coming here are being cheated,” says Mahendra Kumar Thapa Chettri, 26, who works as a security guard in Joh o r B a ru. “We have to work beyond our shifts , are paid much less than the contract, and if we are injured in a workplace accident, instead of providing insurance, we’re deported.”
Another Nepali security guard in Damansara, 43-year-old Dilip Malla, says: “I was promised RM1,550 for eight hours of duty, for 26 days. But I work 12 hours for 30 days straight for less money, with no holidays whatsoever.”
Malla confides to a fellow Nepali: “If we refuse we’re beaten. If we don’t work for a day, even if it’s because we’re sick, the employer deducts RM100.”
Five million of Nepal’s 28 million people work abroad, most of them in India. Malaysia is second with 700,000 Nepalis working in plantations, factories and as security guards.
Most fall prey to unscrupulous recruiters back home in Nepal; they also have to bribe officials for permits, and when they get to Malaysia they rarely receive the pay they we re promised.
“US TIP (Trafficking In Person) reports of recent years show how the condition of migrant workers in Malaysia is absolutely the worst in the world,” says Aegile Fernandez of the labour rights group, Tenaganita.
Last month, 13 Nepali workers were deported without their passports, after signing papers that they would not return to Malaysia for six years , punished for no fault of their own.
“We came here legally but the company we were working for turned us illegal,” said 38-year-old Padam Bahadur Rai who came to Malaysia three years ago to work for a local firm .
When he spoke out about excessive workload, he was beaten and transferred.
But three months ago, Rai and other Nepalis found out that they were illegal because their employers gave them fake migrant identification cards, and had not extended their visas.
Rai said the company was not even registered and it was deducting RM155 from the salaries of Nepalis as levy.
He wrote to the Nepal Embassy and with help from a Nepali worker welfare group, filed a case against the company with help from Tenaganita.
“We’re not asking for much but a year ’s worth of government tax we paid to a fake company. We’ve reached a settlement but they have yet to pay us,” Rai says.
A Nepali labour activist, who asked not to be named, says Rai’s case is just one among many of Nepali migrant workers cheated by Nepali recruiters and duped by employers in Malaysia.
No action on complaints
“We have 5,000 complaints filed by migrant workers but there has been no action from the government till today. They’re just collecting dust,” says Fernandez.
It is also not possible for poor Nepali workers to pursue cases on their own as they neither have the resources nor the knowledge of how to work the system.
“Civil society, the trade union and the Bar Council are helping them as much as they can with legal advice, but that is not enough,” says Florida Sandanasamy, the Migrant Workers Project Coordinator at MTUC.
“The government should be willing to talk with working organisations and migrant community itself , ” she adds.
Half of the migrant workers in Malaysia are undocumented, but many of them were not illegal, to begin with.
Foreign workers arrive with proper documents after paying high recruitment fees, but they are made to work in appalling conditions here for the lowest possible wage.
“Many run away and work illegally rather than face exploitation, but they never get to escape completely. It’s a vicious cycle,” explains Sandanasamy.
The abuse starts in Nepal by recruiters exploiting the vulnerability of jobless young men and women and charging exorbitant fees for employment in Malaysia.
“They are all lies,” says Thapa Chettri. “No one here has got the pay or job promised by the middlemen.”
'Nothing but pain here'
Minister in Prime Minister’s Department Paul Low, in his speech at the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia on Dec 7, said that by January 2016 employers must pay minimum salary (RM900) to foreign workers.
Under the new law, employers will no longer be able to hold the passports of workers, and middlemen will be abolished.
Fernandez is sceptical. “As always, implementation is the issue,” she says. “It is illegal to hold passports, but when a worker goes to file a complaint against an employer for doing it, he is deported.”
Sandanasamy says there should be regular and direct dialogue between the governments of Malaysia and Nepal about the protection and rights of workers.
“Nepal is sending a huge labour force. Both the countries should be proactive and involved because unless there is political will to take action, migrant workers will continue to suffer and be abused.”
Back at Damansara, Malla says he cannot wait to go back to Nepal. “I won’t stay here long, and I want to tell Nepalis not to rush to come to Malaysia. There is nothing but pain here.”
SONIA AWALE, an intern with Malaysiakini , hails from Nepal and is pursuing her Master's in Journalism at the University of Hong Kong.