A Migrant Worker’s Journey of Despair – and Hope

loading Shammu.

Penang Monthly sheds light on the plight of an undocumented Bangladeshi migrant worker as he speaks about his new life in Malaysia and the horrors of human trafficking.

I watched him strike my friend’s head with a steel rod. But I couldn’t do anything to help. I was paralysed with fear, and even if I did something, there was a very high chance that I would become his next target. The ship’s owner killed at least 30 people during that trip alone. The bodies were thrown overboard. I have never witnessed violence of such magnitude before.

The cluster of squalid shacks where a dozen or so undocumented Bangladeshi migrant workers live is well-hidden from view. As I enter the area, the odour of sweat, magnified by the heat, hangs in the air.

Shammu, my interviewee, stands wary but welcoming at the entrance of his shack. He is one of the few Bangladeshis there fluent enough in English for an interview. “I came to Malaysia in June 2014, shortly after completing my master’s degree in Political Science at Bangladesh National University.” Enticed by the stories his uncle painted of Malaysia and its people, Shammu came to the country in search of a better future. “I had heard promising tales of Malaysia being a wealthy country, about how my people could easily secure jobs and make good money here to send back to their families.”

It was not, however, a bed of roses. “Since coming to Malaysia, I’ve had to change jobs thrice now. My first job was working at a fish farm. I would help catch the fishes, then kill and distribute them to the restaurants with my boss. The job was good – I suppose it was beginner’s luck. But the business went bankrupt so I next became a gardener at a luxury residential neighbourhood. I worked nine hours a day, 26 days a month. But the wage was little. Now, I’m working at a laundromat. I earn good money here, about RM1,500 monthly excluding overtime pay. But I have to work 12 hours a day.”

Shammu adds that as of late, it has been a struggle to financially provide for himself and his family back in Bangladesh amid Malaysia’s economic slump. “Now, everything here is very expensive. I would usually send RM600 back every month. But even with the exchange rate, the amount is still quite little, only about 11,000 taka. In Malaysia, a kilo of rice is RM5. In Bangladesh, it’s about 90 taka. Here, a kilo of beef is RM28, back home it’s around 500 taka. The money I send back is really not enough to put food in my family’s mouths.

“Before coming to Malaysia, I toyed with the idea of working in Europe instead. But I don’t think I would have been able to afford the expensive cost of living. Besides, I’ve got a solid network of friends working in Malaysia; that’s important for me to not feel so lonely.”

As an undocumented migrant worker, Shammu says that dodging immigration officers has now become part and parcel of his everyday life. “I have gotten caught about eight times now. Each time I get caught, they demand money. Sometimes they ask for RM600, but I try to reason with them. I ask if they could take RM300 instead, since I’m strapped for cash at the moment. They usually agree. But if I were to refuse them, then I’d get caught again and again.” On his days off, Shammu prefers staying at home while he waits for his papers to be approved by the Immigration Department.

In his spare time, Shammu reads to improve his English.

The communal bath area of Shammu's residence.

A Harrowing Journey

I ask Shammu if he could tell me about his journey to Malaysia. At this, his face visibly slackens. “It’s not a good memory. I try to block it out as much as I can.”

After a few minutes, he hesitantly agrees. “I was supposed to come over to Malaysia with a childhood friend. We set off from Bangladesh on May 12 on a two-deck ship with a capacity for 500 people. But there were more than 1,000 people on board. The youngest was about 15 years old and the oldest was 60. It was extremely cramped inside the ship, made worse by the stifling heat and the filth.

“When the ship’s living conditions became unbearable, some people would act out. They would shout and cause a commotion. That’s when the ship’s owner would resort to violence in order to contain the disorder. He would use knives, steel rods, whatever he could lay his hands on to silence us.

I hope to go back in the next seven years and when I do, I hope to break into a career in politics. The current political climate in Bangladesh is bad. The gap between the rich and the poor has widened considerably. I want to try to bridge the gap. It’s a step closer to making a palpable difference in Bangladesh.

“My friend was one of his victims. I watched him strike my friend’s head with a steel rod. But I couldn’t do anything to help. I was paralysed with fear, and even if I did something, there was a very high chance that I would become his next target. The ship’s owner killed at least 30 people during that trip alone. The bodies were thrown overboard. I have never witnessed violence of such magnitude before. No one in the ship tried to intervene when the killings happened since people kept to themselves most of the time. When you’re stripped of all that is safe and comforting to you, everything becomes about a survival of the fittest.

“When the ship docked in Thailand, they told me that the money my parents had paid to fund my trip had been used up. I was instructed to walk to Malaysia. There was a group of us. We started our journey in the afternoon. We walked all night through the jungle and reached Malaysia the next morning.”

Since then, he has had trouble sleeping. “I have recurring nightmares about the killings, about seeing my friend’s battered body on the ground, unmoving.” He pauses. “Things were so much simpler back in Bangladesh. Back there, I was just like any ordinary person attending university and giving tuition on the side to children whose parents couldn’t afford to give them a proper education. I was poor but sheltered. But the journey here opened my eyes to the horrors that I’d heard about but never actually witnessed myself. I still find it difficult to understand how minor disorder could lead to cold-blooded murder.”

No Place like Home

In the three years that he has been here, has he been openly discriminated against? Shammu takes a second to deliberate. “Penangites are polite in their dislike of us. Rather than telling us outright that they don’t like us, they just leave us alone. But I know most Malaysians are quick to assume that by coming to work here, we will be calling Malaysia home and as a result snatch up the bulk of employment opportunities available. But I don’t think that is the case. If we were given a choice, most of us would like to go back to Bangladesh someday, once we have made enough money for ourselves.

The Bangladeshi migrant workers are given old furniture by their employers to make their shacks a little more liveable.

“I have been away for a long time now and I miss Bangladesh. I miss my family and everything that Bangladesh represents: the culture and the food, especially my mother’s cooking. But I hope to go back in the next seven years and when I do, I hope to break into a career in politics. The current political climate in Bangladesh is bad. The gap between the rich and the poor has widened considerably. I want to try to bridge the gap. It’s a step closer to making a palpable difference in Bangladesh.”

But right now, Shammu is determined to earn his keep in Malaysia. “I’m the oldest child in the family, so it’s up to me to make sure that my family is well cared for before I make any plans of my own.”



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