Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Rela chief: Give us more power
Andrew Ong
May 29, 07 12:16pm

exclusive If he had his way, People’s Volunteer Corps (Rela) director-general Zaidon Asmuni would like to see the body equipped with even wider powers than it now holds.

“We want not only the power to check passports and travel documents. If you ask me, we want more than that. We want the power to investigate and prosecute in court,” he said in an interview.

“But who am I to ask for this? We just follow decisions made by the top. For now, we will follow whatever is stated in the law.”

Zaidon, formerly the Pahang Immigration Department director, believes that Rela is an unique enforcement body because of its sheer numbers. At last count, it had 475,000 members nationwide.

“(As an immigration officer) whenever I conducted a raid, the most I could bring along was about 20 officers. For 20 people to cordon off a big kongsi (housing for construction workers) which may contain 100 illegal immigrants, the number of arrests would be low,” he explained.

“Rela can call up 300 members. I think not even one (illegal immigrant) can run (away from the raid). The uniqueness of Rela lies in our large numbers.”

Zaidon was also asked to respond to questions on the screening of recruits, use of guns and alleged human rights violations, among other issues that have caused controversy. There is growing criticism by human rights groups and the Bar Council that Rela personnel are abusing their powers and are involved in violence.

Rela, an agency under the home ministry, was created under the Essential (Ikatan Relawan Rakyat) Regulations 1972 which provide the power of arrest, entry into premises without a permit and to carry firearms.

No disciplinary system

Following amendments in March 2005, Rela’s “core business” has become nabbing illegal immigrants through raids led by either the district Rela officer or his deputy - who are former members of the armed forces.

District Rela officers are given blanket approval to seek out and detain illegal immigrants, with operations often conducted at night both for the element of surprise and because many personnel hold day jobs.

“It’s done by calling (up personnel on the phone). We don’t have (to do paperwork) to carry out an operation. We don’t plan (over a) long (period) because we want to keep operations as secretive as possible.”

Zaidon also revealed that after every operation, the district Rela officer has to lodge a cover report with the police, regardless of whether or not any arrests were made.

Unlike other enforcement bodies, Rela does not subject its personnel to disciplinary action in the event of complaints. Those found to have abused their powers are stripped of membership.

“We cannot take (errant) members to court... If the Rela member commits a crime, it is up to the police to investigate under the Penal Code,” Zaidon added.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Malaysiakini: Worker's Death Exposes Slave-Like Conditions

Worker's death exposes slave-like conditions
Anil Netto
May 17, 07 1:07pm

The shocking torture and death of an Indian national allegedly at the hands of his employers in Malaysia has highlighted the lack of protection and support networks for migrant workers in this country.

The brutalised body of R Ganesh was flown back to Tamil Nadu state in India, one day after Malaysian workers observed Labour Day. Three suspects - sauce factory owner T Rajan, his wife M Ganeswari, and their 20-year-old son Vijaar - have been charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder. The case will be heard in court on June 5.

Ganesh was reportedly subjected to daily beatings, deprived of food and sufficient rest, and chained and locked in a dark room. He was eventually dumped in a wooded area, but was found by villagers who sent him to hospital. He succumbed to his injuries on April 27. Pictures of his gaunt face, the horrendous bruises on his back and his protruding rib cage shocked Malaysians. In hospital, he was little more than a bag of blistered skin and bones.

Ganesh's may have been an extreme case, but it suggests that a poor regulatory framework and lack of a support network may have contributed to his ordeal and his inability to escape from his dire situation. In most cases, the balance of power in the relationship between employers and migrant workers is extremely lop-sided; most migrant workers are frequently at the mercy of their employers.

While many Malaysian employers treat their migrant workers with varying degrees of decency, there are others who are abusive or exploitative towards their workers who often have little recourse to protection. Work permits often specify or bind them to a single employer and their passports are usually held by the employers or agents, further restricting the workers' freedom of movement.

Premier assurance

There are fears that a proposed Foreign Workers' Bill would restrict foreign workers to their living quarters, although Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has given an assurance that the workers' freedom of movement would not be restricted under the new law.

Even if they were able to, most migrant workers are reluctant to return home earlier than scheduled because of the huge loans they have taken to finance their trip to Malaysia in the first place.

There are other deterrents. If at all they run away from their employers, without their passports or new work permits they are deemed to be undocumented or "illegal" migrants. They are then the targets of crackdowns by enforcement personnel or the uniformed volunteer vigilante group, Rela, which has often been accused of high-handed methods in rounding up undocumented migrants.

Once caught, undocumented workers are usually sent to immigration detention centres where conditions leave much to be desired. Courts at these centres sometimes impose a whipping sentence and those found guilty are eventually deported. All the immigration centres are reportedly overcrowded. A commissioner with the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) told the press that Suhakam's recent visit to the Tanah Merah detention centre on the east coast revealed that over 600 migrant workers were housed in a space meant for 400.

One doctor who has treated undocumented migrants from a detention centre says some of them suffer from skin diseases and the effects of a poor diet, while others complain of a lack of sufficient drinking water. This appears to tally with the findings from interviews with deported workers conducted by rights group Tenaganita and civil society groups in the workers' country of origin, according to the Tenaganita programme coordinator Aegile Fernandez.

In George Town, Penang, a visibly shaken young Indonesian domestic maid, Yati (not her real name), recently met IPS after running away from her employers the previous night. ''I was knocked on the head for the slightest mistake I made,'' she said, tearfully. ''I just could not take it any more; so, when I had the chance, I ran out of the house without thinking of taking any of my belongings.'' Without any money, her several months' wages still unpaid, no change of clothing, and most crucially, without her passport, which was probably held by her employer or the local recruitment agent, Yati was helpless.

Yati eventually found her way to the Indonesian consulate in Penang, where every month some two to three dozen Indonesian maids seek refuge. The maids stay at the hostel there until they reach a negotiated settlement with their employers or are sent home.

The numbers seeking refuge are higher in the national capital.

Victims of trafficking

Fernandez says an average of 150-200 migrant workers, the majority of them maids, seek refuge at the Indonesian embassy there every month. ''We put them under the category of 'bonded labour' and that falls under the category of trafficking,'' she said. That is a view shared by the Geneva-based International Organisation of Migration (IOM), an inter-governmental group promoting humane and orderly migration.

Last year, the IOM began to help repatriate dozens of maids who lacked proper travel documents and were sheltering at the Indonesian consulate in Penang, it said in a press briefing note on its website. The IOM considers these women to be victims of trafficking although they had arrived in Malaysia using official international routes. The group noted that trafficking victims are exploited by unscrupulous labour agents and frequently subjected to physical, psychological and sexual abuse by their employers. ''They are particularly vulnerable when they enter countries illegally in search of employment, use forged papers or are forced to handover their legitimate travel documents.'' It is not just domestic maids who are at risk.

An increasing trend is for outsourcing companies in Malaysia to hire workers from India and Bangladesh on behalf of 'principal firms', including multinational corporations, based in Malaysia. ''But once they come into the country, in many cases, they are not sent to the principal company and are instead placed in various locations doing temporary work,'' says an activist, who declined to be identified.

In one case, he said, the workers had to work a few days in an oil palm plantation, next at a chicken farm, and then at a construction site. ''They were sent all around the country in groups.'' It is a shattering experience for these workers, many of whom had taken loans ranging from RM8,000 to RM13,000(US$2,300-3,800), often selling their homes and land to finance their trip here, he said.

For her part, Yati, the runaway maid, is not interested in staying back to claim her unpaid wages. ''I just want to go home to my family'' - even if it means going home empty-handed.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Global rights watchdog: Disband Rela

Global rights watchdog: Disband Rela
May 9, 07 3:07pm

An international human rights watchdog said the Malaysian government should disband Rela (People's Volunteer Corps) on grounds of repeated complaints of abuse and unlawful behaviour towards migrant workers.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement today that it has documented many instances of such abuse this year alone including:

• (April 5) Volunteers arrested some 20 Burmese refugees and asylum seekers at a market in Kuala Lumpur, of whom at least five had been officially recognised as refugees by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

• (late March) Eight members of a team removed belongings worth RM1,800 from one dwelling and were detained on robbery charges

• (March 8) An officer detained an Indian immigrant with identification certifying his legal status. It took four days for the worker's employer to obtain his release from a detention camp for illegal immigrants.

• (March 6 and 7) Volunteers who were to have handed out flyers related to court orders helped a developer evict 50 families and tear down houses in Kampung Berembang. They operated bulldozers and were also alleged to have used excessive force.

• (March 2) 10 volunteers raided a factory in Jenjarom, Selangor, injuring two Nepalese workers and detaining eight others.

• (January 28) Rela raided in Kampung Sungai Merab, Denkil, resulting in the arbitrary arrest of 14 persons recognised as refugees by UNHCR.

“Rela volunteers (who are) fully uniformed, armed and unaccompanied by police or immigration officers, often employ unnecessary force and illegal policing practices,” the HRW statement said.

It also listed Rela’s modus operandi in, for example, breaking into migrant lodgings in the middle of the night without warrants and brutalising the occupants and extorting money from them.

“(They also) confiscate cell phones, clothing, jewelry, and household goods, before handcuffing migrants and transporting them to detention camps for ‘illegal immigrants’,” it stated.

Distinction ignored

The organisation said Rela members have failed to distinguish or have deliberately ignored the distinction between undocumented immigrants, and refugees and asylum seekers.

“At other times, volunteers have refused to recognise a worker's legitimate immigration status ... volunteers have been known to deliberately destroy identification cards proving a worker's right to be in Malaysia.

“Rela's behavior has embarrassed the government into announcing some minor reforms but tinkering with raiding procedures or upgrading training will not get to the fundamental issue, which is that Rela should be disbanded.”

Almost half a million volunteers are authorised to help maintain public order, primarily through the arrest of undocumented migrant workers.

According to the home ministry, the role of Rela is “to help maintain security in the country and the well being of the people” as the eyes and ears of the government since 1972.

However, in 2005, the corps was given more power to stop ‘any person suspected as terrorist, undesirable person, illegal immigrant or an occupier’.

“The government has set up what's little more than a vigilante force to target foreigners. Given Rela's repeated abuses, it should be disbanded right away,” HRW added.