BANGKOK--Three Burmese women who went to work legally in Malaysia two years ago are being detained pending deportation after they lodged a complaint with police about sexual harassment and mistreatment in the workplace.
Tin Tin Khaing, Aye Aye Aung, and Myint Myint Khaing arrived in Malaysia in September 2006, hoping to make money to send to relatives in their hometown, former capital Rangoon.
They began working legally at Sibaraku, a Japanese restaurant in the southern city state of Melaka, 148 km (92 miles) south of the capital, Kuala Lumpur.
But on June 11, they filed a complaint with their local Brickfields police station that their kitchen supervisor had harassed and threatened them after they refused his sexual advances.
"They came here legally. And they were ill-treated here," labor rights campaigner Ye Min Tun said. "It was like sexual abuse. This man said they would have to sleep with him at night. The girls didn't go along, so he ill-treated them at work."
"Later, he subjected them to a hand-held device that gave out electric shock, so they came to us," said Ye Min Tun, of the non-government Burmese Workers' Rights Protection Committee based in Kuala Lumpur.
"We went to open a case for them. The restaurant boss said he would negotiate [with the women to reach a settlement], and tricked the women into coming to him [for a meeting]. The case was opened on June 11."
Police detained the women's supervisor on June 14, following the complaint. Local rights groups said they also found the electrical device which they alleged he used to threaten them. But then, the tables were turned once more, campaigners said.
"This is not against any of the immigration laws. However, not only did the immigration arrest them, they also put them in the immigration prison and are now even arranging for their deportation," Sandanasamy said.
Representatives from Malaysian human rights organizations including the Legal Aid Center based in Kuala Lumpur have visited the three women in the Lenggeng immigration detention center, also in Melaka.
Burmese migrant workers in Malaysia live at the mercy of international human-trafficking gangs who sell them back and forth as slave labor with the full knowledge of Malaysian and Thai immigration officials, according to a series of investigative reports by RFA's Burmese service.
Thousands of Burmese find themselves stuck in a human rights no-man's-land after losing their legal status, often because employers withhold passports or refuse to pay their return airfare.
Reports of mistreatment and substandard living conditions within Malaysia's little-known immigration prisons are rife, as undocumented migrants are detained for indefinite periods.
Conditions in the detention centers have sparked protests, complaints to Malaysia's human rights body, riots and breakouts. Immigration officers often stage raids on suspected illegal immigrants using volunteer security forces who have wide-ranging powers, the right to bear arms, and little professional training.
Rights groups say children, pregnant women, and United Nations refugees awaiting resettlement to a third country have all been detained recently in such raids.
Human rights lawyers say Malaysia's legal system lacks a clear distinction between illegal immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and immigration officers can imprison anyone without papers.
Tenaganita's Sandanasamy challenged the government to specify what the women had done to merit detention in Lenggeng.
"What section of the act have they breached, or what section of the penal code have they breached, or what section of any laws in the land of Malaysia have these workers breached?" she said.
Original reporting in Burmese by Kyaw Min Htun. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Translated by Than Than Win. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.