Making a killing from illegal labour

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 May, 2007, 12:00am

Illegal migrant worker Raman Ganesh was promised a cushy job, high wages and frequent trips home to Chennai, India. Last Tuesday he went back home - in a coffin, a victim of torture, abuse and starvation.

Police have arrested his employer, the man's wife and their 27-year-old son, and plan to charge them with murder. They allege Ganesh was regularly beaten, scalded with hot water, not fed, confined to a small dark room and worked to death.

His death has shocked Malaysians, putting the spotlight on the plight of nearly a million migrant workers who, like Ganesh, enter the country as tourists but work illegally in small, backyard factories.

'A dastardly act so full of cruelty' said the heading of one of many angry letters published by The Star newspaper.

'Among ourselves we are kind-hearted, gentle and compassionate, but become extremely cruel to foreign workers,' said Ragunath Kesavan, a lawyer and vice-president of the Bar Council, who has handled many cases involving migrants.

'The migrant workers are extremely vulnerable ... we should be ashamed of the cruelty we inflict on them,' he said, adding that such cases happen regularly. But Ganesh's brutal death has prompted ordinary Malaysians to demand changes.

'I never realised until now there is so much hatred and bitterness among us,' wrote Ghazali Osman in a letter to The Star. 'We must wake up and fight the injustice that prevails in our society. We cannot allow this to continue and destroy us.'

The way to combat the cruelty is to severely punish employers who break the law, many say.

'Because they are illegal, the employers work them hard, pay them [a] pittance and later tip off the police,' said Irene Fernandez, executive director of Tenaganita, a rights group that helps exploited migrant workers.

'They are jailed for overstaying, whipped and later deported,' she said.

The Malaysian Trade Unions Council, which represents private sector trade unions, said little was done to correct the injustices because authorities were swamped by the size of the problem.

'We have a section to help foreign workers but we are also overwhelmed,' said Sivananthan Arumugam, a senior official. He said employers break every rule in the labour rule book when it comes to illegal migrant workers, from wages and living conditions to medical care and repatriation.

A Visit Malaysia Year 2007 campaign has worsened the situation by making it easier for migrants to enter the country. On-arrival visas are available if they fly on Malaysian Airlines, the national carrier.

'They are entered as tourists by the Tourism Ministry and later as illegal migrants by the Home Ministry,' said Dr Fernandez. 'It's like an industry ... everybody gets a share of the migrant.'

Officials are paying Rela, a volunteer corps, to round up illegal workers. Twenty-one detention camps are being built to accommodate arrested migrants and a dozen special migrant courts have operated since January to speedily process them.

'It is a big job and getting bigger by the month,' said Mr Sivananthan. 'The question is, shouldn't migrants like Ganesh be stopped from entering in the first place?'