Monday, June 26, 2006

Pro Bono

These past few weeks have been a blur. I have started my Legal Aid chapter of my chambering. It is basically pro bono work and I am currently assisting this NGO that goes by the name of Tenaganita which concerns women and migrant workers.

As we deal mostly with migrant workers, we hear a plethora of sob stories and it is heart breaking and a very humbling experience. As most of the workers than walk into our clinic are from India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar, we are talking about very poor people who in most cases had to sell what little they had at home to the work agents to bring them here to work.

You can guess what happens next. It is such a shame how some local employers exploit their workers and we are talking about these poor chaps who work for more than 10 hours for just RM20 a day and even then subject to the numerous deductions the employer would impose on whim.

There have been many many instances where when the workers stand up for themselves, the employers merely cancels their work permits, hence rending them illegal migrants as they have no cause to be in the country anymore. Then the Immigration Department comes down on them and shunts then off to the Detention Centre, which is another deplorable story altogether.

When things reach breaking point, they come to the clinic where we help where we can, be it liasing with the employer for some sort of remedy or the relevant government departments to allow them to sue their employers or just to get them home.

Pro bono work is indeed interesting although for Tenaganita it is exhausting both phycically and emotionally. If you had the unhappy occassion to cross swords with the Immigration Department, you would know the stress it entails. Now imagine if you are a migrant worker who nobody cares about and who everybody conveniently blames for all the social problems in the country - think you will receive any sympathy from the authorities?

I think we tend to forget that they are people too. I admit, before being apart of this, I viewed migrant workers with suspicion too. They may not dress or sometimes smell too well and my guess is that many people would rather not know of their existance. It is really not their fault as they can't afford the basic luxuries that we take for granted.

On the first day I was on duty and I had to interview 10 Indian nationals who have not been paid for more than 3 months by their boss. That night I could hardly touch my dinner as I felt guilty for being so priviledged that I can eat without wondering where my next meal would come from.

I have had to accompany a migrant worker to make a police report and today I visited the Embassy to facilitate a worker's repatriation. You won't believe what a problem it is just to send a worker home even if he desperately wants to!

You see, the moment one's work permit expires, one is considered an undocumented migrant and even if one has a valid ticket to go home, he would be arrested at the airport and sent to Detention Camp and charged in court! Hence we have to make sure that all the legalities are dealt with and fines paid before even sending a worker home. Easier said than done.

Of course there are bad hats out there who give a bad name to the entire clan, some certain nationals more than others, but sadly all of them gets painted with the same fear and prejudice and we don't seem to see that in many ways they are just like us, trying hard to make a living the best way they know how.

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