Trapped and abandoned: The fate of Sabah’s illegal migrant workers

Wives of the construction workers worry about whether they will be able to eat in the days to come.

PENAMPANG: When the movement control order (MCO) took effect on March 18, all migrant worker Abdul Rizuan and his family had to live on was RM100 given to him by his boss the day before.

Now, though, the money has run out.

Not only is he desperate to buy food supplies, he is also increasingly worried about his one-month-old infant.

He said RM100 was given to each man and RM50 to each woman who worked the day before the MCO was enforced. That was it.

“I am desperate. I need to buy milk. Any kind of milk will do, even condensed milk,” the construction worker said.

For the past week, his wife has been cooking porridge to feed his family – himself and three boys aged a month old to six.

Rizuan is one of 28 heads of families of illegal migrants now trapped in the construction site of a high-end residential project at a Penampang village near SMK Datuk Peter Mojuntin.

Makeshift homes for the construction workers in the Penampang village.

In all, 116 people, including children and infants, are living in squalid conditions inside the wooden makeshift quarters.

They cannot get government food aid and they cannot move about freely due to their lack of identification and travel documents.

They claim their employer abandoned them when the MCO was extended on April 1.

It was only on Thursday last week that the company’s supervisor brought supplies of rice, eggs and instant noodles to be divided among the families.

“Each family had one 5kg packet of rice, 15 eggs and eight packets of Maggi curry instant noodles,” said Rizuan’s colleague, Yusop.

“Two days ago (on Monday), we tried to call our employer but he no longer picks up the phone,” Yusop added, saying the food supplies given last week had also run out.

Another worker, Malin Jainal, said the company owed every worker three months’ salary and that the last money they had received was only RM100, to sustain them during the stay-at-home order.

“I began working here early this year and the only time I was paid a salary was in February. After deducting the advance I took and other things, it all came to around only RM300.

“For the month of March and April, nothing has been forthcoming,” he said.

Children playing in the living room of one of the makeshift workers’ quarters in the Penampang village.

A local villager told FMT that he was growing concerned about the state of the migrant workers.

“They could become very desperate and resort to stealing. They are good people but they may be forced to commit crimes if the situation continues,” said the 60-year-old man who lives near the site.

He noted that a nearby sundry shop had been forced to stop giving them credit as their debts had run up to over RM3,000.

According to him, the sundry shop owner also fears the migrants will not be able to pay their debts as the employer is no longer in contact with them.

The man said the workers’ employer had previously given them coupons instead of cash to buy food items.

A man and his wife sitting in front of their makeshift quarters, discussing what they will do next.

He claimed the coupons were only valid at a sundry shop set up by their own company and that the prices had been marked up.

“Instead of paying them money, the company also created the coupons to pay the workers less in salaries and profit from their own hired workers,” he said.

Another villager, who only wanted to be identified as Simon, said extending help to the illegal immigrants was a politically sensitive matter.

“Although we want to help them, there’s nothing we can do. This whole problem could be politicised due to the anti-illegal immigrant sentiment among many Sabahans.

“We have tried asking NGOs which are apolitical to help them out, but nothing has been forthcoming yet.”

Simon said local leaders had also been notified about their situation but that they preferred not to get involved due to the political situation.

Simon believes more illegal migrants like these are being exploited elsewhere in Sabah too, and that what is happening in his village might just be the tip of the iceberg.