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 labor or debt bondage by their employers, employment agents, or informal labor recruiters when they are unable to pay the fees for recruitment and associated travel.
Samantha was recruited from the Philippines for entertainment work in Malaysia but had her passport confiscated and was not paid for her work. She was able to escape during a police raid. Her account describes police corruption and a lack of help forthcoming from the Embassy of the Philippines.
To help my parents survive poverty, I entertained the idea of working abroad. There was no chance for me to land a job locally, having no college education to speak of. Even college graduates have a hard time locating work.
I was recruited by a man named Joseph to work in Malaysia as a band singer, with an offer of a monthly salary of 60,000 pesos (US$ 1,260). I was recruited along with two other girls who also aspired to migrate for work. Joseph transported me in 2006 by ship and we landed in Sandakan, Malaysia, where a man named Harry met us at the port to proceed to Miri. Another Chinese man met us and collected our passports for a chop (seal) to pass through the immigration. We went to Kota Kinabalu after paying a fee. From Miri, we went by plane to Kota Kinabalu. A woman met us at the airport and we took a bus to Kuching.
We sang at a club; we worked but did not receive any pay. In fact, we were asked to pay our debt. The cost of travel was charged to us, including the chop fees for the passports; in addition payment was collected from us for power and water bills which were initially promised to be free.
When we asked for a new job with higher pay, we were given jobs as guest relation officers (a euphemism for entertainer) in Kalampai, which was illegal. We accepted the jobs because there was no way for us to pay the debts claimed by the woman, and for us to go home for good. We worked hard every night, yet we did not receive any pay for days except for a few Malaysian ringgit to buy shampoo and soap but not enough to buy food. Then we found ourselves eventually sold to various men. At the beginning, we were told that they would not force us to go out with men but later on, we were scolded if we would not go out with them. We suffered also from constant stress as we were periodically checked upon and raided by the Malaysian police. We wanted to run away but could not go because they kept our passports; we were warned that if we dared to go we would be taken to a gangster.
One night the police raided a night club I was at. I was able to hide on the terrace near an air-conditioned unit where I hung clothes from the clothesline to cover myself. All of the women except me were taken and arrested. Their passports were confiscated. They were photographed. There were media reporters. My passport was surrendered by our house caretaker who thought that I had been arrested with the other women. I asked for the intervention of the Embassy of the Philippines. In fact, I called up and asked to be rescued but the Embassy just told me that there was no budget.
I went to the immigration office in Kuching to get an exit pass. To my surprise, I was detained instead of being issued an exit pass. The officer took my statement of a lost passport and I declared that an agent had recruited me from the Philippines. I was not detained for long because my boyfriend who accompanied me paid the officer in exchange for my freedom. Immediately, my boyfriend bought a ticket for my return to the Philippines. Upon arrival in Davao in 2007, I was able to make an affidavit of complaint and produced evidence of illegal recruitment and attendant issues. With the help of the Center for Overseas Workers in Davao, I filed a case against the recruiter, but unfortunately he could not be found.
As told to the UN Human Rights General Assembly, 12 August 2009