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  • Sevan Doraisamy

Bonded Labour in Bahau

Updated: May 26

From Selancar Ampat to Bahau



In 2020, SUARAM received a bonded labour case of Ramesh, a 24-year-old from Bahau who has worked at the plantation for the past four years. Although the general perspective leaves an impression that migrant workers are the only victims of modern-day slavery in Malaysia, SUARAM can strongly deduce it is a misperception as the case of Ramesh and many other similar cases involving Malaysian employees being forced to work as bonded labourers to pay off their debts have been recorded. Bahau, the name is believed to be derived from a Chinese phrase which means Horse’s Mouth, located at Jempol District, Negeri Sembilan. This small rural town of Bahau, nevertheless assumed a monumental role by being the focal point or the linkage town for various towns in four different states, namely, Malacca, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang and Johor. Established during the arrival of Chinese settlers in search of tin, Bahau ended up as the golden pot for rubber, plantation, and timber for the settlers. The social diversity comprises mainly Chinese, and Malays predominantly located at the surrounding Felda settlement at the outskirt while Indians have been residing in and accustomed to plantation estate for generations.


The main labour force at these estate plantations were Malaysian Indians whereas Malays lived and engaged in socio-economic activities in Felda settlements. Several reports on the practice of cheap labour as well as bonded labour around these plantations and its settlements have been highlighted occasionally.


Bonded labour is a form of forced labour, occurs when a person or family is forced to work, purportedly to pay off their debts. They are often cheated, manipulated, or tricked into the bondage system with a scanty pay or no pay at all. The bonded labourers have no control over their debt as most of the money, if not all, that they earn is used to pay off their debts. According to ILO’s Global estimate of forced labourers, Asia sits at the top with an estimated 11, 700, 000 labourers compared to other regions. The Global Slavery Index in 2018 stated that Malaysia is at 14th place in the Asia region for highest forced labour from 28 countries surveyed in the region.


In many instances, the labourers will remain bonded rather than tasting the air of freedom as they were unable to pay off the debts due to oppressive modus operandi. According to the International Labour Office (ILO), bonded labour reflects an imbalance in power between the worker-debtor and the employer-creditor. It has the effect of binding the worker to the employer for an unspecified period, anything from a single season to years, or even successive generations [1].


In Bahau, Ramesh was working with a Contractor, known as Sashi (employer) at one of the plantations for daily base wages. Ramesh initially was asked to look after the fieldwork at the plantations nearby as he often takes up fieldwork offered by his employer. Ramesh must carry out multiple fieldwork activities at the oil palm estate ranging from digging holes, ploughing land, planting saplings, applying or spreading fertilisers to protecting seedlings. At certain times, it can be more than the specified fieldwork.


One day, Ramesh was accused of stealing a motorbike belonging to one of the workers from the neighborhood and later was charged at Bahau Magistrate Court. Surprisingly, his employer offered him to upfront the bail amount and in return Ramesh was instructed to stay and work at a plantation estate on a regular basis together with his wife until he paid up the debts.


Ramesh and his wife agreed and moved into the Goodwood Estate, also known as Gudugudu [2] Estate by the locals, where Sashi is the main contractor there and oversees the work in the estate. Ramesh has now started work as bonded labour at Sashi’s place and it was merely the beginning of many of the constant troubles he was facing from Sashi and his subordinates guarding the place.


“There were several other workers in Gudugudu Estate where we were staying. They are treating us like slaves, often beat us if late for work and scold us for even small mistakes. We were not paid enough, and this led to a fight between me and my wife as well. Because of that we left the estate and stayed at our house at Sri Rompin,” Ramesh, 24, said.


While Ramesh’s case is still pending at court, he negotiated with his employer for a better salary, but it was denied. Ramesh was paid around RM42 per day if he worked inside the plantations and RM50 if it was somewhere outside the plantation as Sashi’s contract involves both inside and outside the estates in Bahau.


“I know I have a case at court and have a lawyer assisting me. I was hoping to resolve my court case, so that I can return the bail amount, but the case was being postponed,” Ramesh added. Ramesh was under the impression his case had been postponed and was trying to find ways to settle his debts but due to Covid-19, he was left with no option but to continue to work with his employer [3].


“On the morning of October 9th, 2020, my superior and three subordinates came to my house in Seri Rompin. They came in a white Hilux and forced me into the Hilux and brought me to Bahau Magistrate Court. I was under the impression that my case was not due, and I was wondering about the turn of events. At the court, the boss was trying to revoke the bail so that I would end up in prison, but the court dismissed the process as it was without proper application. After that, we were forced to stay at Gudugudu Estate again,” Ramesh explained the horrifying incident.


SUARAM’s lawyer who is representing Ramesh said he received a call from Ramesh’s wife’s friend to inform him about the incident. Shashi Devan said, “After receiving the panic call very early in the morning, I had no choice but to immediately head to court. I was perplexed as at that hour in the morning, I am not able to contact the courts to check if there has been a change in the court date or if for some reason, I mixed up the date. Nevertheless, I made the decision to head to court from KL that morning. When I arrived at court, I saw several men on bikes crowding the waiting area in front of the court. I immediately checked with the court and was informed that Ramesh's case was not fixed on that day. I then attempted to speak to the bailor who was sitting in the waiting area. She explained that she wanted to revoke bail and surrender him to court. According to her, she was advised by a policeman to do so.” According to the lawyer, the court refused to entertain the case and insisted on returning on the date fixed previously.


“The bailor had also informed me that it was not the first time she has revoked bail and that she is aware how this particular court works and was confident that she would be able to revoke bail and get Ramesh arrested and detained the same day, explaining to me clearly that Ramesh has no one else to bail him out and that this would teach him a lesson.” This means Ramesh and his wife either agree to the terms and conditions of the employer to continue work as bonded labour or end up in prison for the crime that he was not committed.

Ramesh said he and his wife were forced to work at odd hours to repay Sashi’s money. When asked about how Sashi forced them: “Like one day, my superior came with three of his subordinates on the night of October 19th and they intruded into my house. Then, they forced me and my wife to follow them for work that night. When we refused, Sashi threatened to harm my wife and warned to lock her up. They forced us to work without any salary and the reason given was to pay my debts from the bail money that I owe to Sashi,” Ramesh stated.


After that incident, Ramesh and his wife had a fight again due to the situation that led Ramesh trapped in the estate under the ruthless employer. Both left the estate since. Ramesh had no choice but to resolve this by pleading guilty so that his bail amount would be returned to Sashi. Consequently, Ramesh spent a few months in prison and was released after. He is now separated from his wife and living away from Bahau.


Ramesh’s situation is not new to the people of Bahau, especially among the Indian community there. Many of them are aware that bonded labour is being widely practised in the plantation estates.


This bonded labour system in Malaysia has been in practice, at least since the 1980's, although it has earlier beginnings, probably even before independence. Despite violating the Malaysian Laws, many contractors are still practising this system and profiting from this business. One of the most horrific bonded labour cases which was exposed in the early 1980s was the “Hell Estate” of Felda Selancar Ampat in Southern Pahang. The contract workers in “Hell Estate” were not only exploited with a bonded system but were detained illegally and treated inhumanely [4]. The workers included children and young people.


This horrendous exposure nevertheless failed to stir authorities into action as the then Pahang Police Chief denied any wrongdoing in this case which was reported in local dailies Berita Harian (Samy Vellu kesal terhadap kenyataan ketua polis, 1983). [5] In the news report, the former President of Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) cum Minister of Works and Public Amenities retorted the police chief’s claim as follows:


Mereka terpaksa tinggal di pondok-pondok kecil atau reban kambing dan ramai pekerja serta kanak-kanak yang mempunyai kesan-kesan luka dan balar di tubuh mereka kerana dipukul dan diseksa dengan teruk kerana melakukan kesalahan kecil. Apa yang mengejutkan ialah kenyataan Datuk Mohd. Noor yang mengatakan tidak ada kekejaman dan penyeksaan berlaku di Kawasan ladang itu!” Samy Vellu said.


There are many factors condoning the bonded labour system in many rural plantations in Malaysia. Corruption, lack of integrity, lack of oversight and complaint mechanism as well as the inexistence of a proper labour system are some of the crucial reasons for the continuation of the bonded labour system, against both Malaysians and migrant workers.


The Selancar Ampat case was exposed in the early 80’s. After 40 years, how many bonded labour practices has Malaysia eliminated? SUARAM has recorded a few recent cases of bonded labour not very far from Selancar Ampat’s which was once housed the “Hell Estate.”


Most of the reported cases involve migrant workers but in certain instances, we have been hearing issues related to local bonded labourers [6]. Some regular places which were reported about this bonded labour practices are from plantation estates in Pahang, Negeri Sembilan and Johor. These stories have appeared in our local media from time to time, especially in Tamil Dailies about several individual cases of workers escaping from their employers. News reports about escaped Malaysian workers who were a part of the bonded labour system rarely conduct proper investigations on the alleged perpetrators. Lack of evidence is usually cited as menial excuses by the authorities, but there are other factors including political will and corruption. As a result, the victim's story is reported without disclosing much of the employer’s details, in spite of these cases happening in our own backyards.


Malaysiakini’s report (Escape from slavery, 2007) [7] on the escape of a married couple from the clutches of a contractor by the name of Maren revealed the generational bondage that began as early as 1992. P. Ramudu, 19, and his pregnant wife A. Kalaivany, 17, dared to escape from an oil palm plantation in Kampung Serampang Indah, Bahau in Negeri Sembilan. The report stated that Kalaivany’s parents and their seven children (including Kalaivany) were “part of the package deal”, pointing out their suffering as a whole family as bonded labourers Ramudu’s mother and two sisters suffered a similar fate under Maren.


Similar to the hardships of Ramesh, Ramudu’s family was subjected to frequent physical abuse, forced confinement,long working hours and their children were also denied access to school as they were conscripted as child labourers. Kalaivany’s father, Avadiar, 42, relayed that two of his children did not have a birth certificate and one of the children born as a result of sexual assault.


Only in this case, the contractor came forward to address the complaints levelled at him to the Malaysiakini reporters [8]. Unmistakably, the idea of proprietorship was loud in the news article. “Look, they are my workers. I brought them to work here, and I paid them for that,” the report quoted Maren. He even admitted to assaulting the workers but only for due purposes. “When this (getting drunk) happened, I have beat them. In fact, I have beaten an entire family for this,” Maran justified the beating as a circumstantial reaction due to the workers’ attitude.


Pahang State Assemblywoman for Sabai, Kamache Doray Rajoo has also previously highlighted several runaway bonded labour cases. She remarked that some of these runaways were from Bahau and went through hell while bonded to the plantations there. Kamache’s social media post on Sept 7th 2018 highlighted the case of Shanti, who was forced into bonded labour at the age of 10. It was reported in a Tamil Daily as well. On June 7th 2017, another case was highlighted by Kamache, as reported in Malaysian Tamilar Kural [9] that Sathiswaran, 20, escaped from the enslavement of his employer when he was 18 years old and it took him 18 months to retrieve his birth certificate and identity card [10] from the registrar. There was another report from Kamache about three teenagers who escaped from their slave-like situation, again from Bahau [11]. The assemblywoman is currently assisting them to get their birth certificates.


These are some of the stories of runaways from Bahau, who are allegedly forced to work as bonded labour but were treated like slaves. Several police reports have been made for most of these cases but the issue of bonded labour in Bahau is continuing till today.


After handling Ramesh’s case, SUARAM, a local human rights NGO supporting Ramesh, went to Bahau a few times to obtain additional information on bonded labour issues. Knowing the existence of such cases and as mentioned earlier, it was important for us to find out more information and further investigate the allegations. Forced labour issues are constantly highlighted in media, other NGO’s as well as reported in ILO, but it is important to prove the allegations with evidence. During our limited visit due to Covid-19 movement restrictions, we gathered some insights of the situation. Although the local people that we visited knew these issues as “kottadimai” and recognised some of the perpetrators, the reluctance to speak up was obvious amongst some of locals. According to the locals, the so-called employers or contractors are very influential and have a big team of local thugs as their subordinates or assistants to “silence” them.


The different work system or Modus Operandi utilised by the contractor on his workers is one of the main factors that are posing difficulties in proving the practises of slavery or bonded labour system. Some of the hired workers are paid on a daily basis and not bonded. Although they are paid much lower than standard Malaysian minimum wage, they are fine with it as this is the only source of income for some of them. One of the workers that we talked with, Lalitha, stated it is difficult to find a job in the Bahau area which pays a decent wage, especially for those without much educational qualifications. She commented, “we know we are being paid less but what to do? We don’t get any other jobs here. So, better to take it and just work. We don’t want to lose this income. We can’t afford it.”


When asked about the bonded labour issue in Bahau, Lalitha said many people know this issue and are aware that they will be bonded too if they are monetarily indebted to the contractors. Lalitha further elucidated the many ways the contractor hired workers. Some will be on a daily basis like herself while the others will be brought to a nearby plantation estate and given a place to stay. The contractor will supply them with groceries and alcohol (toddy) which will be deducted from their wages.

When SUARAM visited this estate, we were unable to enter the site as the security guard refused to allow us in, claiming it is a private property. The security guard said his boss is not around and declined to answer. As we don’t want to create any suspicion, we decided to leave the place. There was a sign outside the estate [12] saying “Ladang Ikatan Aktif” of “Ikatan Aktif Sdn. Bhd.” and this name was never mentioned by any of the people that we met and interacted with.


SUARAM also met another former worker of the contractor who identified himself as Senthil. This young worker who witnessed the bonded labour situation while he was working at the estate said the contractor owns a house in Gudugudu Estate and he is controlling the place with his own team. Some of them are gangsters (thugs). Moreover, according to Senthil, they will bring the workers out as early as 6 am for work and will return only after 8pm, so it is difficult to meet any of the workers during the daytime. At night, it is dangerous to enter the estate. Some of the workers are locals from Bahau and he also heard that the contractor has agents recruiting vulnerable workers from Tampin and other places.


Senthil also revealed that the contractor Sashi has many “connections” in that area. Sugu and his wife are amongst Sashi’s helpers who will occasionally travel all the way to Tampin to “hire” workers who are jobless, vulnerable and entangled in some sort of debt either at the toddy shop or with some individuals. The couple will offer the workers to pay off the debts and in return they need to follow them to Bahau to work as labourers in plantations. Once they agree, they will be stationed at Gudugudu Estate and will be bonded.


The new recruits will be provided with a place to stay, groceries, cigarettes and alcohol which will be deducted from their wages. In most of the cases, the workers don’t get a take home salary and work relentlessly to pay back their debts. These charges are expensive and often cause the workers to end up being bonded to pay back their debts.


Unpaid for their labour, these workers therefore are forced to be trapped into debts and an endless poverty cycle. This unfortunate event has been happening for at least the past 30 years and currently is being continued by second and third generations.


The reasons given are usually they are indebted; thus, they have to work or are forced to work to repay their debts. However, in most cases the debts are not settled but increases as the employers or contractors will mark up the workers' expenses who are provided with shelter, food and grocery supplies since the workers are not allowed to leave their houses until they pay off the debts.


Our internet search on Goodwood Estate and Ladang Ikatan Aktif failed to obtain much information except for the mentioning of Ladang Ikatan Aktif as a bordering estate on a map in page 53 RSPO [13] report. The company search document under the Company’s Commissions or SSM didn’t reveal much information except the addresses of shareholders who consisted mostly of Perak [14].


As for now, only Ramesh has lodged a police report against what happened to him and to date there is no progress on this matter. Ramesh has also completed his jail term after pleading guilty and is now a free man. He has left Bahau and started working at a different place completely unrelated to contract work in the plantation and he is much happier now receiving monthly wages at a new workplace far from Bahau. The rest of the people, workers, or others mentioned above that have affirmed about the continuing practises of bonded labour or “kottadimai” in Bahau, are unwilling to come forward as a witness to support their claims against their employer. In the end, they are the local people relying on odd jobs including the contract work offered by employers like Sashi. This is an important public interest case because many groups including NGOs and workers’ unions are still fighting and struggling for better minimum wage. Yet, a handful but influential employers continue to exploit not only the workers but also the weaknesses of the system by implementing the bonded wage system for generations without any fear. We received yet another similar case last month, again from Bahau, which shows this modern-day slavery is here to stay if we don’t expose and punish the perpetrators.



[1] Special Action Programme to combat Forced Labour. (und). (und). ILO Indicators of Forced Labour. International Labour Organization. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_norm/---declaration/documents/publication/wcms_203832.pdf [2] One of the estate workers, Lalitha, said the place earned the name ‘Gudugudu’ as the locals refer to Goodwood Estate in Bahau. [3] Extracted from Ramesh’s police report. Refer Appendix 1. [4]Lim Kit Siang. (1983, July 24). DAP Motion in Parliament tomorrow on Selancar Empat ‘hell estate’ exploitation. Retrieved from https://bibliotheca.limkitsiang.com/1983/07/24/dap-motion-in-parliament-tomorrow-on-selancar-empat-%E2%80%98hell-estate%E2%80%99-exploitation/ [5] Samy Vellu kesal terhadap kenyataan ketua polis. (1983). Berita Harian. [6] Bonded labour in estates. (2008). The Star. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/letters/2008/08/17/bonded-labour-in-estates [7] Kabilan, K. (2007, January 3). Escape from slavery. Malaysiakini. [8] Kabilan, K. (2007, January 4). Contractor denies supplying slave labour. Malaysiakini. [9] Print screen of Malaysian Tamilar Kural. Refer Appendix III [10] Pdf copy of Kamache’s FB posting. Refer Appendix IV [11] Pdf copy of Newspaper article. Refer Appendix V [12] Photo taken during our 2nd visit on 4th December 2021. Refer Appendix VI [13] Muhammad Syafiq, A.R. (2015). RSPO Principles & Criteria Public Summary Report Annual Surveillance Assessment 3 (Report No. CU817884). Control Union (Malaysia) Sdn. Bhd. www.rspo.org/uploads/default/pnc/Jeram_Padang_POM_ASA3_CU817884_Jeram_Padang_POM_2015.pdf [14] SSM documents search on Goodwood Estate Sdn Bhd and Ikatan Aktif Sdn Bhd. Refer Appendix VII.




References


Bonded labour in estates. (2008). The Star. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/letters/2008/08/17/bonded-labour-in-estates

Kabilan, K. (2007, January 3). Escape from slavery. Malaysiakini. https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/61590

Kabilan, K. (2007, January 4). Contractor denies supplying slave labour. Malaysiakini. https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/61643

Kabilan, K. (2007, January 3). Shaken, rattled but mission accomplished. Malaysiakini. https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/61693

Lim Kit Siang. (1983, July 24). DAP Motion in Parliament tomorrow on Selancar Empat ‘hell estate’ exploitation. Retrieved from https://bibliotheca.limkitsiang.com/1983/07/24/dap-motion-in-parliament-tomorrow-on-selancar-empat-%E2%80%98hell-estate%E2%80%99-exploitation/

Muhammad Syafiq, A.R. (2015). RSPO Principles & Criteria Public Summary Report Annual Surveillance Assessment 3 (Report No. CU817884). Control Union (Malaysia) Sdn. Bhd. www.rspo.org/uploads/default/pnc/Jeram_Padang_POM_ASA3_CU817884_Jeram_Padang_POM_2015.pdf

Samy Vellu kesal terhadap kenyataan ketua polis. (1983). Berita Harian.

Special Action Programme to combat Forced Labour. (und). (und). ILO Indicators of Forced Labour. International Labour Organization. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_norm/---declaration/documents/publication/wcms_203832.pdf



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