Stranded without work for months, hundreds of South Asian migrants in Malaysia say they are losing hope after failing to find jobs promised to them by recruitment agents in exchange for thousands of dollars in fees.
At a students' dormitory about 40km from Kuala Lumpur, about 500 migrants – mostly young men from Nepal and Bangladesh who had arrived in Malaysia since December – spend their days in crowded rooms or at an open-air cafeteria.
They say they arrived in the country on a three-month work visa that was meant to be upgraded to a work permit, but never was. Because their legal status is unclear, they are afraid to leave the premises, the workers told Reuters at the facility where they are staying.
Many say recruitment agents took their passports and continue to promise them jobs.
"We are all depressed and helpless. We already paid a huge amount for the job. How can I pay that back if I do not have a job?" a Nepali migrant at the dormitory told Reuters.
The 23-year-old, who declined to be identified for fear of backlash from recruitment agents, signed a two-year contract with a Malaysian cleaning company but has not started work. He said he, like others there, had borrowed 300,000 Nepali rupees (US$2,300) to pay an agent for the job. He was promised a monthly salary of RM2,062 (US$464.94) per month.
The workers at the facility all tell similar stories: upon arriving in Malaysia, recruiting agencies told them no jobs were immediately available and took them to accommodation facilities to wait. They were then told they would eventually be employed; in the meantime, they must pay for their own food without a salary.
It is unclear how the workers ended up without jobs despite arriving in Malaysia with employment contracts and promises that their temporary work visas would become permanent on arrival. Malaysia last month launched an investigation.
Puncak Jupiter Management Services and Star Domain Resources, listed as employers on some of the workers' travel documents, did not respond to requests for comment. Amial International, one of the recruitment agencies the workers used, did not respond to requests for comment.
The human resources ministry and the labour department did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The ministry has promised to find jobs for a separate group of 226 stranded workers from Bangladesh and Nepal.
Migrants form the backbone of Malaysia's export-reliant economy, making up about 15% of the country's 15 million workforce. Malaysian companies have faced US bans in recent years over use of forced labour.
Rights activists say migrant workers have been at greater risk after Malaysia eased recruitment processes this year in a bid to fill a 1.2 million job shortage across its plantation, manufacturing and construction industries.
"It's a bigger problem now," said Adrian Pereira, the executive director of migrant rights' group North South Initiative, adding that his team had received reports of about 1,200 other workers across Malaysia caught in a similar plight.
The Bangladesh embassy in Kuala Lumpur last month called for more transparency by Malaysia to prevent its citizens from being cheated of jobs.
A Bangladeshi official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, told Reuters a "few hundred" of its citizens were stuck in Malaysia without jobs.
The Nepal embassy has also said it received such complaints.
At the facility visited by Reuters, the migrants lived four to six in small rooms with bunk beds and one shared bathroom.
Two workers – Nepali citizens aged 43 and 46 – died by suicide between February and April at the facility, the Nepalese embassy in Kuala Lumpur said, citing reports from the police and hospitals. Reuters could not determine why the two men killed themselves.
Without income, the migrants find it difficult to buy food and pay back loans back home.
"We still don't know whether we will get a job or not. The agent keeps asking us to wait... it's been three months," one Bangladeshi worker said.