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.
Ko Wunna is a 28-year-old resident of Burma's former capital, Rangoon, who was trafficked to Malaysia by gangs importing illegal workers in a constantly revolving racket in which, former participants say, the Malaysian police are also complicit. Here, Ko Wunna about his experiences over three months working for a trafficking gang in the region in and around northern Malaysia's Kedah province, which borders Songkhla and Yala provinces in Thailand. He reveals that illegal migrants who don't come under the aegis of one gang are vulnerable to worse exploitation by others.
I was arrested [by Malaysian immigration authorities] on Nov. 15, 2008 and was sentenced to jail for two months and one stroke of the lash. I was released on Jan. 2, 2009. After I was released from prison, the Thai human traffickers [to whom Ko Wunna says he was then sold by immigration authorities] told me to buy myself 'back in' [to work in Malaysia] from the border town of Changlun. But they wanted 2050 ringgit (U.S. $570) to buy myself back in. I couldn’t give them that much money. Those who could pay were able to leave.
Seven of us were left behind. We told them that we would work our way out. But they would not accept it. They said if we could not pay we would be sold to an Indonesian boat under a five-year plan. What we heard about this five-year plan was that if we were unable to work, they would kill us, beat us to death. We were afraid, so we escaped in the night. The traffickers and their Thai boss chased us. We fled into the forest.
In the morning we saw a tea shop and asked for help. The people in the tea shop asked what nationality we were. We told them we were from Burma. They said we should contact the police. We thought about it. The traffickers chasing us had iron rods and were closing in on us. They also had motorcycles and if we crossed the street they would have tried to hit us with their cars. And if we were caught by the Thais we knew we would be dead. So we decided it would be better to be arrested, so we surrendered to the police.
The police told us to wait while they telephoned their officer in charge. The police told us to sit and wait at the tea shop. While we were waiting the police officer arrived. But it seemed that the police officer and the traffickers had done business in the past, because one of the traffickers came along with the police officer. They told us to get into the car. The police officer himself drove the car while the trafficker sat next to him. They took us to the same place that we had been kept before.
After leaving us there, the police left, after receiving 2,000 ringgit from the traffickers. There were four traffickers. They kicked us with their boots. Later three more of them arrived with a gun and a metal chain. They hit us, but not on our faces where the injuries could be seen. They also used knuckle-dusters to hit us on our bodies.
After we were caught again, the price [to leave the gang] went up to 3,000 ringgit. They said that if we did not pay the 3,000, the Thai bosses would cut our legs off as an example to the others... I was concerned so I contacted my home, but they were also in a tight situation in terms of money. So I did not ask for help from them again.
There was no way I could pay the money they asked for. So they told me to work for the payment. I agreed and did what they told me to do. After that they did not look after the new arrivals, they just kept them in that big house with just me looking after the new arrivals ... The traffickers gave me a phone, a book, and a ball-point pen. I had to register their names, their destination, and the phone numbers the new arrivals were calling. Those who could pay the money were brought forward first.
The traffickers first showed me how to deal with the new arrivals. If they could pay 2,500 ringgit they were allowed to make the telephone call. If they could not pay, or if they said they would pay at the end of the month or later, I was told to hit them across their faces. Since they asked me to hit them, I had to do it.
It was not easy, as I myself had gone through the same fate in the past. But I had to hit them because if I did not do as I was told they would turn against me. So I had to hit them a bit in front of the trafficker. But after the traffickers had left, I would apologize to the new arrivals. I told them that I would have to hit them, kick them, and treat them roughly in front of the traffickers, but that I was not really like that. And I asked them to understand my situation. They understood, as all of us were Burmese.
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