Slavery beneath the surface

Many large restaurants employ migrant workers who in many instances seem to be fully entrusted with the running of the business. Though the bosses may be absent the restaurants function smoothly at least as far as customer needs are concerned. We have our meals, pay the cashier who is most likely a migrant worker, and leave. We seldom pause to wonder if this normal, efficient exterior could hide conditions of modern day slavery.

Slavery to most of us brings to mind a harsh and decadent work environment with a slave owner bearing a whip, and wretched-looking, lesser men in chains.

Modern day slavery is often minus the visual effects but it is quite widespread. Most migrant workers are not free men. Their passports are usually in the possession of the employer, and not just for the officially stated purpose of safekeeping. The passport held by the employer is often a tool to keep the worker in line, and docile, especially in situations of non-payment of wages, unpaid work etc. It is the invisible whip in the hands of the modern employer and at its most vicious, can be used to instantly render the migrant worker undocumented and completely devoid of any rights.

Recently 6 migrant workers were left in the lurch when a restaurant owner drove them out and shuttered his restaurant. The workers who had worked for between 5 to 10 years had finally found the courage to stop work until they were paid their overdue wages. Their employer had regularly flouted the Employment Act by not paying wages and OT dues for about a year.

The employer’s failure to pay wages for long periods of time wreaked havoc on the workers’ families back in India, their home country. Families suffered the usual hardships struggling to make ends meet, and fend off moneylenders but worse, tensions built up leading to families breaking up, and marriages on the verge of collapse.

The employer’s drastic action of dismissing the workers was not expected, and the workers suddenly found themselves in a scary situation. They had no money, no passports and no work permits on them, and no one to turn to for help. Fortunately the boss allowed them to continue staying in their hostel. A kind neighbor put them in touch with Parti Sosialis Malaysia, and with their help, the workers were able to lodge a police report, and file a complaint at the labour office. The boss offered them RM10,000 each (some 60% of what he owed them) claiming he was facing severe financial problems and was trying to sell off his business. The workers had feared they would get nothing, and besides they were desperate to get home to their families. So they readily accepted the offer.

Modern day slavery sounds like it could be a rare occurrence, but it is there just beneath the surface in many decent-looking workplaces. The laws are all there (Employment Act, Passport Act) but without enforcement, without labour inspection, workers – both migrant and Malaysian – remain unprotected. Labour officers claim they are short staffed. If indeed they are, why isn’t the government setting aside a larger allocation for labour inspection? Without enforcement, protective laws are merely rights on paper.

Rani Rasiah
Central Committee
Parti Sosialis Malaysia
Parti Sosialis Malaysia Migrant Desk

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