Killing turns spotlight on female migrants

KUALA LUMPUR • Ms Li Nang, a young migrant worker wearing hot pants and high heels, stood before a gilt statue of a goddess garlanded with marigolds and fairy lights in Kuala Lumpur as she prayed for good business - and her own safety.

Malaysia's underground community of undocumented female workers was thrust into the spotlight when news emerged that Mr Kim Jong Nam was assassinated by two women migrants on Feb 13 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2.

Since then, a Malaysian police crackdown on undocumented workers such as Ms Li has escalated.

Airport CCTV footage showed two women approaching the half- brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and apparently rubbing his face with a cloth. Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 25, and Doan Thi Huong, 28, from Vietnam, have since been charged with the murder and face the death penalty if found guilty.

Little is known about the two women, with police saying that Huong worked at an "entertainment outlet", while Aisyah was a masseuse at a spa. Immigration experts say the secrecy surrounding their lives illustrates the clandestine existence led by thousands of undocumented South-east Asian women migrants.

Many migrants travel to Malaysia through formal labour contracts, but thousands more take advantage of being allowed to work in Singapore and Malaysia for 30 days at a time, travelling back and forth between two or three countries and trying to earn as much as possible before their luck runs out.

Taking up jobs as cleaners, waitresses, masseuses and prostitutes, they live in the grip of a murky system, vulnerable to exploitation and harassment by police looking to shake them down for bribes.

As she prepared for work, Ms Li, a 25-year-old Vietnamese prostitute, kept up a stream of messages with her sister in Ho Chi Minh City.

"I texted her saying, 'I have to take the risk. What choice do I have? I need the money'," she said inside a dimly lit bar.

At a pub in the Petaling Jaya suburb, Filipino waitress Mika (not her real name) said that police had intensified their efforts to hunt down illegal workers like her following Mr Kim's assassination.

Three of her friends working in the same bar were recently arrested by police. "Fortunately, I was off that day. I think God saved me," the single mother said.

Malaysia, South-east Asia's third- largest economy, is highly dependent on foreign labour.

According to a World Bank report in 2015, the country hosts some 2.1 million registered migrants and likely more than one million others who are undocumented.

Women are especially vulnerable, with agents or employers forcing some of them to live together in the same house under constant surveillance, said migrant rights activist Aegile Fernandez.

"Some are even threatened by their employers that they will be handed to immigration, or even threatened with rape," she said. "If you were in that situation, you would be in fear. You know there is no way out, you just continue working."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 13, 2017, with the headline 'Killing turns spotlight on female migrants'. Print Edition | Subscribe