There are an estimated 212,000 people living in modern slavery in Malaysia (GSI 2018). The majority of those exploited are migrant and undocumented workers in the country. Foreign workers constitute more than 20 percent of the Malaysian workforce and typically migrate voluntarily—often illegally—to Malaysia from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines, and other Southeast Asian countries, mostly in pursuit of better economic opportunities. Some of these migrants are subjected to forced labour or debt bondage by their employers, employment agents, or informal labour recruiters when they are unable to pay the fees for recruitment and associated travel.
Shamshad travelled to Malaysia for work through an agent. Upon arrival he was taken to work at a timber factory where he was to be paid less than half what was promised. After two months the employer told Shamshad and fifty other workers to leave as there was no more work. They were not paid for their labour. The same agent found a new job elsewhere and Shamshad’s passport was withheld, leaving him unable to go back home.
I came to Malaysia in January 2008. I had studied up to the SSC [the Secondary School Certificate examination, conducted at the end of year 10] and was unemployed after that for three years. It was hard finding jobs there, with Bangladesh being a poor country, with too many people applying for too few jobs. An agent came to my village to look for workers. The agent asked for 205,500 taka [$2,990], which was [then] about 12,500 ringgit. The agent promised me 1,000 ringgit in wages [$290 per month], with free food and housing. I was told that I would pay for electricity. I agreed and paid the money. I left for Malaysia about four months later.
I was picked up from the KLIA airport after reaching Malaysia. Fifty-one workers came with, all using the same agent. We were then all taken to Penang Island, to a factory in Bukit Panchor. It was a timber factory, and my job was to lift timber. The agent took away my passport. I worked in the factory for two months and 15 days. I worked eight hours a day and was paid 18.50 ringgit a day [between 450 and 500 ringgit or $130 to $145 per month, less than half of what was promised]. My food was not provided as promised, although my accommodation was provided by the employer. I stayed in a room with 15 other workers. After working there for about two and a half months, the company told all of us 51 workers who had arrived together to all leave because there was not enough work. All 51 of us then left.
The same agent who had brought us to this company then found us a new job elsewhere. I worked there for two months but was not paid wages for the period. They did, however, occasionally give 50 ringgit after repeated requests. We therefore received about 100 to 150 ringgit per month [$29 to $44] for the period. The agent then disappeared, telling us that he was handing us over to a different agent.
At the time, our passports were being held by the agent. When I asked for my passport back, the agent said that I would have to pay 600 ringgit [$175]. I did not get my passport back at the time. I could finally afford to buy it back in January this year .
Narrative credit to Amnesty International
Originally published in ‘Trapped: The Exploitation of Migrant Workers in Malaysia’