Irene is an Indonesian woman who was enslaved in Malaysia doing factory work that was hazardous to her health. Foreign workers constitute more than 20 percent of the Malaysian workforce and typically migrate voluntarily—often illegally—to Malaysia from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines, and other Southeast Asian countries, often in pursuit of better economic opportunities. However, workers can find themselves imprisoned, exploited, and in debt bondage. The law allows many of the fees of migration, which are first paid by employers, to be deducted from workers’ wages, incentivizing employers to prevent workers from ending their employment before fees are recovered.
I worked in Selangor. I start work at six in the morning, and I finish work at four the next morning. I was only given this rice and salt to eat without any meat. I was given a meal only once a day, at half past one in the afternoon. I was given a break for only 15 minutes, no more.
We had to produce 70 barrels of tofu every day. I prepared the ingredients. I suffered burns to my skin due to contact with the chemicals contained in the tofu. There were five kinds of chemicals, labeled in Chinese letters. When I came into contact with these chemicals, my hands would swell and also my feet. It was mixed with the filtered eggs. We wore rubber gloves, but the water and chemicals seeped through.
I worked at the factory for two months. During the two months there were many harassments, because there were ten male workers from Myanmar, and I was the only female Indonesian workers. After work I was usually afraid, afraid that I would be raped.
Once I tried to kill myself, by drinking poison, because I can’t stand the work. I was not only making tofu, but after work I also had to clean the floors which would use up about five barrels of water. And then I would have to wash the equipments that are used to produce the tofu. To wash three pieces of equipment takes around eight hours. I asked my employer to have one of the Myanmarese workers help me wash the equipments, but she answered “I purchased you from your agent for 7,000 [ringgits], so you can’t have any help,” and then she slapped me two times.
Looking at me, the Myanmarese workers mocked me. If I had known their language I would have retaliated. Everyday they made fun of me, insult me. I was once even locked in the toilet for two days by the Myanmarese workers. I was scared, there were ten of them and I was alone. Luckily there was a chair in the toilet, and I used it to jump out of the room and was able to return to the factory floor. There were no daily supervision by my employer. The work was completely entrusted to me and the Myanmarese workers.
Finally, after my body hurt all over, and I couldn’t stand it any longer, there was one of the Myanmareses, Machi, who took pity and he told me to run, let myself be caught by the police, rather than work like this. He said your work should be done by six persons, but you are working alone. He told me to escape and that he will wait for me. He gave directions. He told me to run straight, and at the fork of the road I must not choose the left fork, because I would be chased by black Indians, killed, have my heart and kidneys removed and sold to the hospital. He told me to take the road to the right, and I will arrive at the main street. I walked for four hours, from two o’clock in the morning.
Machi told me not to go before or after two o’clock for my own safety. If you find a policeman or someone willing to help, just trust that person. But I prayed that I would not be caught by the police, because I would certainly be arrested and jailed, after being hit with a rattan cane.
Thank God I did not meet any policeman nor anybody on the street. I walked for four hours. I was chased by forest wild dogs because the factory was located in the middle of a forest in the suburbs. I was chased by eight dogs, but I held on to my Al Quran and read out the istighfar and the prophet’s prayers, and thank god the dogs only ran behind me, beside me, and in front of me, but they did not bite. But my clothes were wet, I peed in my pants because I was scared that I was going to die.
But fortunately after four hours I arrived at a house of a Malay. Upon arriving there I was only able to say three words, please help me, and then I passed out. After that, maybe I was taken inside by the owner of the house and taken care of for three days and three nights. The Malay was a bit confused and scared because I didn’t have a passport nor a work permit. Then he told me it would be better if we go to the embassy.
My body hurt so much. At the embassy I was bedridden for a week and was tended by a physician, because my hands were in such a hideous state, their skin peeling off. I still have deep scars, and my leg has not healed because the ointment is used up.
Even at the embassy I was scared that I would meet my agent. I did not tell the embassy the name or phone number of my agent, because he told me that if I attempted to run then I would be killed like another worker…. When I had arrived in Malaysia at the agent’s house there were already two of my colleagues who were sent by the same company as mine and who also came from my village. One had gone insane, and the other was unconscious, with dried blood coming from the ears and nose and mouth. I saw them for myself and was very scared. His servant said my agent had killed people before and the bodies were thrown away to the sea.
As told to International Organization for Migration (IOM) affiliates at a shelter in Jakarta, Indonesia, in November 2005.