The Bangladeshi High Commission in Kuala Lumpur sits on a leafy road near the Petronas Twin Towers. It’s a posh-ish area, for posh-ish people. No wonder officials feel compelled to call in the police whenever they see too many workers camping just outside their gate. All those grasping people. What would the neighbours think?
They’ve become a regular fixture here – anxious migrants lining the road, waiting their turn to see some Very Important People. Our translator was here back in December. He said he saw hundreds of men sleeping on the road, and under the nearby bridge. Hundreds of men – desperate, hungry, smelly, exhausted. They had journeyed to the capital in search of help.
The place was not nearly as crowded during our recent trip. Talk is, many of the workers had been rounded up, and put in detention camps. We met a small group of about 20 men. They eyed us warily, before a few agreed to talk.
M had been camping on the ledge outside the High Commission walls for more than a week. He looked worn. Haunted, almost. Like he couldn’t believe what was happening to him. His story is a familiar one – he and his colleagues had paid their agents close to RM10,000 each for jobs in Malaysia. They arrived and discovered their company didn’t have enough work. For months, they made virtually no money. The food was bad, the living conditions, dismal. They finally decided to travel to KL to lodge a complaint at their High Commission. They were told not to expect a settlement any time soon.
S, feverish and shivering, had been there much longer. He said he had run away from his first company because they paid him barely enough to survive. In KL, he found work at a construction site. The people who hired him used him for nearly a month, then gave him RM50 and a cheap mobile phone and told him to scram. He told us he hadn’t eaten for two days. He looked incredibly young. Pale. Overwhelmed. He didn’t have his passport, didn’t have a visa. Didn’t have anything except some clothes.
Midway through our interview, a man barged in and started talking into the camera. He worked for a Bangladeshi NGO, he said. He had been posted to KL to look into the welfare of abused workers. He thought the government should revamp their visa policies so stranded workers wouldn’t be so vulnerable. He had theories about why the situation was so dire. He knew exactly how to put things right. He spoke and spoke and spoke. And then, just before it got dark, he stopped. Gave us his name card and drove away in his NGO car. Didn’t say a word to the starving workers he was supposed to help.
Later that evening, we returned with boxes of rice and curry and gave S the name and number of an activist who might be able to help. The men thanked us. Gathered to wave as we left. We waved back. Barely spoke. Words would have been redundant anyway. What could we say? What on earth could anyone say, or do, to make this fucked-up situation any better?