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Death in the tropics
Publication Date : 28-01-2014
Statistics from the Nepali Embassy in Malaysia are disturbing. Since 2003, a total of 2,373 Nepali migrants have died in Malaysia, with the body count rising every year.
The number of deaths rose from 252 in 2012 to 341 in 2013. Embassy officials say that five Nepali migrants die in Malaysia every week, with most deaths attributed to "natural causes".
Because the majority of deaths are deemed to be natural, employers are not legally obliged to offer compensation to the families of the workers. Thus, of the over 2,000 dead, only 20 per cent of the families have so far received compensation or insurance returns.
Employers are protected by an anachronistic law, the Workmen’s Compensation Act 1952, drafted when Malaysia had fewer migrants. The law only requires them to compensate families in case of industrial or traffic accidents, that too in cases of permanent disablement and only up to 23,000 Nepali rupees (US$227).
As the majority of migrant workers are young men, the number of deaths due to "natural causes" leaves room for suspicion, especially when the immediate cause of death is a sudden heart attack.
How can a healthy man in the prime of life simply drop dead of a heart attack without extenuating factors? Migrants’ rights experts point to long hours spent toiling in the tropical heat without adequate rest as a probable cause, but there could possibly be other reasons too.
Since 2005, road and industrial accidents in Malaysia, for which the employers are liable, have allegedly been decreasing while deaths from chronic diseases, suicide and natural causes are on the rise.
Furthermore, Malaysian immigration conditions impose restrictions on foreign migrant workers’ right to association. Unable to unionise, migrant workers are forced to deal with their employers on a piecemeal basis and are often terminated for demanding better working conditions and minimum wages.
For the families of most Nepali migrant workers, the death of the primary breadwinner can be devastating.
Most workers take loans at exorbitant interest rates simply to finance their migration and when they die, they leave these loans for their families to pay back.
Lacking other opportunities, this situation can eventually push another family member to migrate too. It is, therefore, imperative that Nepal's Ministry of Labour and Employment take up this issue with the Malaysian authorities, like it did with Qatar.
Partnering with other countries with large migrant worker populations in Malaysia, like Indonesia, Bangladesh, Myanmar and India, could also pile pressure on the host country to make legal amendments that allow compensation for the death of migrant workers.
To begin with, a government investigation into the death reports from Malaysian authorities is warranted. Suspicious causes of death must be looked into and the conclusions of Malaysian authorities verified by independent experts. Unlike many other labour-receiving countries, Malaysia is a democracy and we believe that there is always recourse for the marginalised and downtrodden in democracies.