The first thing you see as you walk up the stairs is a pile of bags. Suitcases, rucksacks nylon carriers, a few plastic bags. Worn, torn, battered. Like the souls of the men you eventually meet. There are nearly 80 of them huddled inside two rooms on the top floor of a three-storey shophouse just outside Kuala Lumpur. One step in, and you realize why they’ve had to leave all their belongings outside. There’s barely enough space to sit down. The men are told to make room for the crew. A few guys scramble out onto the corridor. But most choose to remain. They have stories to tell.

Photo by AKM Mohsin

The Bangladeshi High Commission Workers Hostel was – as the name suggests – set up by the Bangladeshi High Commission in Kuala Lumpur. What is not immediately clear however, is the fact that the bulk of the funding comes from manpower agents.

How does one begin to explain the irony?

Most workers wind up in shelters because of their agents. Agents who pumped them up with hope, fed them stories of fat salaries and riches beyond their wildest dreams. Agents who convinced them to sell land, pawn jewelry, take on massive loans, in order to journey halfway across the world… and straight into a nightmare.

Bangladeshi workers we meet in Malaysia tell us they pay recruitment fees of up to RM10,000 to their agents. In return, they’re promised a two-year contract, and fat salaries of more than RM1,000 a month. They hand over the cash, travel thousands of miles, and discover when they get here, that they’ve been fed a pack of lies.

We try to interview a group that’s just arrived from Perak. They’re wary at first. Uncertain if they should say anything. But then one man opens up, another chimes in, and suddenly, everyone’s talking. They show us papers. Their employer, Sung Garments Sdn Bhd, runs a factory in Taiping. They say they were made to work at least 12-hours a day, seven days a week. They show us their payslips. Most months, each man earns an average of RM300. Their contract states very clearly, that they should be getting at least RM900.

And then, they hit us with this:

“Salary paper give, money no give. Real salary only RM50.”

RM50 a month. Just enough to keep a man alive so he can keep working.

They ran away. Of course they did. Who wouldn’t? And ended up here.

“Who doesn’t have his passport?” Our translator asks for a show of hands.

Everyone in the room waves. And we understand immediately why all the doors were locked when we first arrived. These men – ID-less and visa-less – are easy targets for RELA, the government-backed volunteer force tasked with ridding Malaysia of undocumented migrant workers. We’ve heard countless horror stories – of migrants being beaten up, jailed and deported.

The shelter offers some protection, but most workers stay no more than a few weeks. The manpower agents who pay for their lodging also do a lucrative business placing them out to local companies in need of staff. The deployment isn’t really legal, but the worker is usually more than happy to comply – he gets to make some much-needed cash.

What he doesn’t get to do though, is decide what happens next. Does he get his passport back? Will he get caught? When does he get to go home? Will he ever get to go home? None of the guys at the shelter has answers. They have nothing, really. No hope, no money, no identity. Nothing, save for the bags we saw when we first arrived. Bags, stacked up in neat little piles on the stairwell, outside.