Monday, October 31, 2011

Forced to work 12-hour days, 7 days a week, for RM420 a month...

Although the number of refugees and asylum seekers working in [Malaysian plantations] is not as high as those working in other sectors, Health Equity Initiatives’ research shows that those who have worked in plantations show more significant symptoms of anxiety compared to other sectors. The most worrying aspect about forced labor in the plantations is that it can often last for years, longer than in other sectors. Plantations are usually located in remote places, making it easier for employers to confine workers without being noticed. Forced labor with physical confinement is probably the worst – as it is very difficult for victims to look for help and employers can impose more penalties...

 Burmese refugees approved under the Malaysia solution arrive in Melbourne (pic by Stuart McEvoy)
Kyawt is a 24-year old ethnic Chin refugee from Burma and a mother of two who first came to Malaysia four years ago. Through friends, she found a job at a flower farm in Cameron Highlands, unaware that she would have to spend two years confined there.

There were many workers of different nationalities at the farm. Bangladeshis, Nepalese and Indonesians were allowed to go outside of the compound, because they had passports. The undocumented Burmese were specifically ordered never to go out. “The boss locked the gate, he’s not nice,” Kyawt recalled. “He wouldn’t even allow family visits and deducted my salary when my brother came to the farm and tried to see me.”

A flower farm in Cameron Highlands (pic courtesy of Random Shots)
Kyawt had long working days of up to twelve hours, seven days a week, with a wage of only RM14 per day. She was never given off-days even when she was sick. “The boss and his children were bad people. They shouted at us and always threatened to cut our wages when we made mistakes.” Kyawt said she felt very sad during the time she was in forced labour, but she felt like she had no choice.“Sometimes I wanted to quit. But […] I asked myself, if there’s no job, should I live unemployed?”

Detention camp in Malaysia (Reuters pic)
Like Kyawt, Min was also confined in the plantation where he worked. He previously worked at a restaurant, but his boss decided that he was not presentable to work there. He then sold Min to a plantation owner in Alor Setar for RM1,000. “I was not aware that I had been sold [but] the boss always said, ‘I have paid RM1,000 to your boss, so you must work for a year. Until then, you cannot quit.” He never received any wage. “While I was there, the compound was locked and […] surrounded by sharp metal wires. [It] was very remote and I couldn’t even see any vehicles around. I couldn’t go anywhere …” As in Kyawt’s case, other documented workers were able to move freely. The plantation owner threatened that if Min ever tried to run away, he would call the Immigration authorities to arrest him.

Min worked 11 hours a day, even when it rained. He was given only two meals every day, usually only rice and leftover vegetables from the plantation. “The boss gave me a container for me to collect rainwater for bath and other purposes.” His main job was to spray insecticide, but he was not given a facemask. He even had to use clothes left by previous workers because the boss refused to “spend more money” on him.

Helpless and hopeless in Malaysia
(courtesy of AP)
Min said that the experience was really hard for him. “At that time, I couldn’t even see myself as a human. The situation really drove me crazy and I felt like I wanted to die.” It was also during this time that he heard about the deaths of his mother and younger sister. “There was no one for me to speak to. The pain I felt was unspeakable.”

Although he eventually managed to escape from the plantation compound, Min said that he continues to feel gripped with fear. “I don’t feel safe. I always feel like the boss will come and do something to me.” There is never a night when he can sleep well and he always wakes up startled. He has trouble distinguishing dreams from reality. “When I sleep it doesn’t feel like sleep, and everything I have experienced comes to my head.”

Min’s testimony is sadly common, showing how hurtful effects on mental health last long after experiencing forced labor.

[Source: Health Equity Initiatives]