Friday, November 4, 2011

Imagine being a 21st century slave: 3 case studies of Burmese workers in Malaysia

John is a 23-year old ethnic Karen from Burma. He came to Malaysia about two years ago, and has since been working in restaurants around Klang Valley. John took up his first restaurant job about three months after his arrival. His main job was to wash the dishes, but he also had to do other cleaning chores at the restaurant, including cleaning the toilets. “I washed and cleaned everything they ordered me to.” He kept the job for about 8 months until he went to try to register for a UNHCR refugee card. “I was scolded afterwards. The boss didn’t want me to register with the UN—he just wouldn’t allow it. Some employers are afraid of the UN card. They don’t like it if we are registered with the UN refugee agency and have refugee cards.”

At present, John works in a food court in Sunway. On average, he works about 12 to 13 hours every day. The employers do provide him with three meals daily, but they take fresh ingredients from the fridge and cook for themselves—we are given stale food.” John mentioned that he does get one day off each week, but to his dismay it is not on Sunday so he is not able to not attend church.

John remarked that there are also documented workers from Vietnam where he works. John mentioned that these workers do not get scolded as much as the workers from Burma. John said it is the verbal abuse that hurts him most. “The employers often pick on us, saying bad things about us, saying that we are lazy people, things like that.” John said his working experience thus far has made him feel downhearted. “I feel ashamed for being here, I feel like my presence in Malaysia is a bother, it’s like we have interrupted the lives of people here. It’s not that I want to disturb the Malaysians. If I could, of course I would choose to work in my own country.”

18th century African slaves in Missouri

Confinement is also found in the service sector, and can be done by agents. San (32), an ethnic Burmese asylum seeker, recalled how he was once confined by agents who promised him a job at the hotel. “He kept me at a house with other people from Burma and Indonesia, including 3 women. We were locked in when they went out. The agent said he would give me a job if available. There were three guards in the agent’s house.” Workers are usually shuttled back and forth from the restaurant to their living quarters. John is housed in a place he refers to as a “hostel,” where he is not allowed visitors. He has to share a small room with five other people.

Similarly, Mei (22)—an ethnic Shan—was also confined at the agent’s place. Every day, she would be brought by the agent to a restaurant where she was put to work as a dishwasher. She was never allowed to go out, and only knew the restaurant and the agent’s place. “I only knew work, and off-work. Work, and off-work. I just followed the agents, wherever they took me to, I followed. I didn’t think of disobeying. If I didn’t follow… I don’t know what would happen.”

John recounted that his prayers were important in helping him to cope, but says, “I am usually in tears after I say my prayers.” He also gets by with support from some friends - fellow Karen refugees in Malaysia. Mei relies mostly upon herself, but feels alone and without anyone to turn to. Trying to avoid feeling upset or distressed, she says that she tries to “suppress her heart,” because crying only makes her feel worse. She also reminds herself that it could be worse, “because I still have my legs and my hands. […] There are people who are richer, they face more challenges. And then there are also people who are worse off, those who have it worse than me. I tell myself don’t think of bad things… think of happy things.”

Experiencing forced labour is a traumatic and stressful experience. Those who have to work in these conditions are able to cope, and keep their humanity, but the toll on their mental health is evident.

[Source: Health Equity Initiatives]