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Three Burmese migrant workers in Malaysia have been deported and an additional two have gone missing after requesting that their employers uphold contractual obligations over payment.
Thirty-five Burmese in total had been detained last week in Johor in southern Malaysia after complaining that the owners of the Sinometal Technology Company had paid them only 640 Malaysian Ringit ($US210) per month instead of the 900 Ringit ($US295) agreed when they signed the three-year contract. They also complained that they were not receiving overtime pay which had also been promised.
Thirty were subsequently released, but the three deported were deemed to be ringleaders of the group.
“On 12 January the employer made a fake report to the police and the police arrived at the hostel,” says Tun Tun from the Burma Campaign Malaysia (BCM). The police detained all 35 workers at around 10.30am but released the 30 at around 6:45pm, telling BCM that the other five were “under investigation”.
According to Pranom Somwong of the Network of Action for Migrants in Malaysia (NAMM), however, “they immediately sent five of the workers’ leaders to the airport, and tried to send them back to Burma”.
No legal charges against the workers were made clear to either advocates or the workers. Human rights lawyer Charles Hector, who advocates for migrant workers in Malaysia, says: “Honestly speaking, the police should not have got themselves involved in this situation where there was no protest and there was no criminal offence happening. This was a labour matter, but police are used by employers to harass migrant workers – this is common practice.”
The case is another indictment of strained labour relations in Malaysia, around 30 percent of whose workforce is made up of migrant workers. Tun Tun tells DVB that Malaysia is thus “a pro-employer country”.
The Kuala Lumpur-based Burma Workers’ Rights Protection Committee estimates there are about 500,000 registered and unregistered migrants from Burma in Malaysia. As of May 2009, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said it had registered 50,000 people of concern from Burma, including refugees and asylum-seekers. Amnesty International claims there are a total of around 2.2 million legal migrants in Malaysia.
Hector believes the incident was aimed at “making the migrants believe that they can’t do anything against the employer”.
Access to the law in Malaysia is widely identified as a problem for Burmese migrant workers, meaning they are more liable to be abused by their employers. Tun Tun adds that the 35 did not speak Bahasa, the local language, and little English. As a result the BCM publishes the laws in Burmese in a newsletter called the Thuria Malaysia.
The 30 who were released returned to their hostel but found it locked and were unable to enter, forcing them to spend the night on the streets.
Through the intervention of groups such as the Malaysian Human Rights Commission, NAMM and the BCM, the country’s labour office became involved and was able to regain the jobs of at least 27 of the 35. As well as the fate of the deported three, concern abounds about the whereabouts of the two leaders whom no one has heard from.