A Stab at Freedom

I was visiting Grace last Friday evening when we ended up talking about her work. She runs a business but at the same time, she is also helping out with the Vietnamese workers who come to Malaysia.
Grace is in a very special position to help her fellow Vietnamese friends – she herself is Vietnamese and she speaks both English and Vietnamese. She is also kind and warm and nurturing.
Talking to her was such a breath of fresh air because she truly shines with optimism despite the hardships she sees happening to Vietnamese workers who come here to work. In her eyes, there’s a fire of compassion and gutsiness.
She and her husband both volunteer with Tenaganita where they help with court cases involving Vietnam nationals. It helps that her husband is a lawyer who is proficient in Vietnamese too.
She recounted tales of how Vietnamese girls were duped to work in Malaysia. When they arrive, they are immediately sent to East Malaysia (Sabah particularly) to work in massage parlours. In these seedy joints, they are forced to become prostitutes to service male clients. They cannot escape as their passports are held by the ‘agent’ who brought them into this country.
One Vietnamese girl braved herself to get help by contacting Vietnam through fax. Eventually she was rescued.
But she’s only one of the lucky stories.
What about the unlucky ones who never get a chance at freedom?
Another case was of male Vietnam workers who came to work in Penang but their employer never pays them their salaries, withholding the salaries for a reason. And because their passports again are held by their agent, they have no means of escape. And they still work 12-hour days.
“But how do they live if they have no money?”
Grace gives a grim smile. “They borrow from their fellow Vietnamese friends. They live on credit.”
Through a network of friends, some are lucky enough to get in touch with the organisation that Grace volunteers for. Then comes the tedious process of making police reports, going to court, getting their passports back and all that jazz.
Human trafficking in Malaysia is a serious matter. Malaysia always gets into the news for the wrong reasons and we’re in Tier 3 in the 2007 U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report.
Reason? For not fully complying with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and not making significant efforts to do so.
Accordingly, “Malaysia is destination country for a significant number of men women, and children who are trafficked from Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, and the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.), India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan for sexual and labor exploitation. Many victims voluntarily migrate to Malaysia to work in factories, construction and agricultural sectors, or as domestic servants, but are later coerced into debt bondage or involuntary servitude.”
It’s a sad fact.
It’s happening under our very noses. Sometimes we don’t know it because we don’t come across people like Grace. Sometimes we live in our middle-class world, ensconced in our material comforts and don’t bother to know.
Another friend also works closely with the poor. And he told me that he was shocked beyond belief when he visited a squatter area which had burnt down not too long ago in Seberang Perai.
“I couldn’t believe this is Malaysia,” he said.
He saw the poor in their wrecked hovels, with nothing to call their own and who had lived for decades without running water or proper sanitation system. And no one did anything to help them. Initially when he and his friends went to help them by giving them food and blankets, the poor were suspicious. They looked at outsiders with unfriendly eyes and they didn’t feel comfortable talking to them. Many didn’t go to school because they did not have birth certificates! Their fathers were drunkards. This wasn’t a Tamil movie. This was real life and it was unfurling before my friend’s eyes.
He’s trying to help in the ways that he can.
And that is why I am grateful for him and Grace and countless others who have the heart to help people we normally don’t see in our everyday lives.
These folks are under the radar. They are not visible to us because they live in a totally different world from us.
But it brings home a concept we take for granted: freedom. Freedom from poverty, freedom from bondage, freedom from modern-day slavery.
I say we are all very lucky. Very lucky indeed.