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Dreams For Afghanistan And Pakistan Workers Shattered In Malaysia

A recent protest in Malaysia.
A recent protest in Malaysia.

For the past six months, Asif Tanvir Zia has been working as a security guard in Kuala Lumpur with a Malaysian security company.

He left his home in Pakistan's southern Rahim Yar Khan district to join the thousands of young Pakistanis and Afghans who come to Malaysia looking for better career prospects and better wages.

Malaysia, with its Muslim culture and growing economy, is a popular destination for those seeking a brighter future, and young men from Afghanistan and Pakistan often arrive here via employment recruiters.

Zia says his recruiter promised good accommodation and excellent wages. The agent also promised Zia that a car would be at the airport to pick him up.

However, after waiting days at the airport, nobody arrived, Zia says.

A foreign worker provides his thump print impression as he registers under a new biometric program in Malaysia.
A foreign worker provides his thump print impression as he registers under a new biometric program in Malaysia.

Additionally, the agent promised him a salary of 900 Malaysian ringgits (around $200) a month. But he's actually only managed to save $60 over the past four months. And the recruiting agent still has his passport, stopping him from leaving.

Zia, who says he misses his wife and children terribly, has been arrested twice for being an illegal immigrant in Malaysia and was only released after bribing the police.

"I don't even know the local language, so I can't tell anyone in authority about my problems," Zia complains. "I have been abused."

According to CARAM Asia, a regional network working on migration and health issues, more than half of workers in Malaysia are foreigners, with Pakistanis making up a majority. There are no confirmed numbers, but figures are estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. CARAM Asia also says more than two-thirds of migrant workers don't get their wages on time and many are pestered or even sexually harassed.

Murad is a young Pakistani working as a laborer in Malaysia. He says recruiters told him their rooms would have air-conditioning and be well-appointed. Instead, Murad says, he shares a one-bedroom apartment with 20 other people.

To add insult to injury, Murad says they have not been paid for three months.

"The [Pakistani] embassy staff in Kuala Lumpur have not helped us at all,” Murad says. "They staff are unkind [and unprofessional]. We demand that our government put pressure on them to do their jobs properly."

The embassy only works four days a week, Murad notes, which is not enough time to service all the people who need them.

If migrant workers complain to their employers, they are more than likely to be dismissed. There is no job security. If a worker is injured, they are in an even more difficult position.

Niaz Ali, a Pakistani, came to Malaysia eight months ago. But an injury on the job six months ago left him with debilitating head wounds. The company he was working for shouldered some of the responsibility for payments to the hospital but refused to pay out any more once the medical bills reached a certain amount. Ali has remained in a Malaysian hospital -- where the cost of treatment is higher than in Pakistan and more expensive for foreigners -- and he has spent almost all his life savings on doctors and treatment.

Although most of the workers would like to return home, it is also difficult. Migrant workers say it can take up to eight days to make any kind of enquiry with the immigration authorities. Sometimes those wanting to apply for permissions end up sleeping in line.

Gul Agha, a migrant worker from Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar Province, says he had been in the same place for six days waiting his turn with immigration authorities. "These problems are enormous for us," he said. "I don't understand why our embassy doesn’t help us out here."

For the past four years, Zuhair, a laborer from Pakistan's northwestern Buner district, has been working as a window cleaner on some of Malaysia's many skyscrapers.

"I spend my days hundreds of feet in the air, and I work overtime all the time,” Zuhair complains. “I feel like I am giving my youth to Malaysia -- and I don't know what I will have to show for it when I return home."