PART THREE: THE INVISIBLE FARMERS

 

The night’s silence is broken by the trudging of many worn boots through rows of butterhead lettuce — one of the Highland’s most popular exports.

 

Blurred silhouettes and the glowing ends of cigarettes leave trails in the darkness.

 

A woman leads the group from the vegetable farm to a shed in the forest, peering around cautiously before entering alone.

 

A moment later, her hand appears, a signal for the twelve to follow her in, carrying buckets of meat and vegetables.


They breathe lightly, worried that the slightest stirring of air will give away their location.

Fried chicken, bee hoon, and
soup are laid out on the concrete floor.
Everyone shuffles silently for a space to eat.

Hardly anyone dares speak,
and dinner is over in 10 minutes.

Since the Bertam Valley floods, life for the
remaining illegal farm workers in Cameron
Highlands have been reduced to whispered
conversations and constant vigilance.

In a bid to stop the widespread illegal
land-clearing which led to the floods,
Datuk Sakib Kusmi, deputy director-general
of Malaysia’s Immigration Department, had
issued a directive to arrest anyone without
proper identification documents.

As of March 2015, the department has
detained 1,172 illegal immigrants
after inspecting 50 farms.

 

Farmers, in fear of the authorities, have
fired their illegal workers. In turn, those
workers have fled into the depths of the
forest to escape jail time.

“The soldiers and police officers have
been raiding the forest every night since
the floods,” said Vincent, one of 13 illegal
Indonesian workers hiding in the forest.

“It is hard to know when they will come,
especially under the cover of the night.”

Life without legitimate papers has been
one of fear, poverty, and broken dreams.

Vincent’s group is among the thousands
of undocumented workers living in the
highlands. But they have more to worry
about than the usual immigrant on-the-run
— they have two babies to care for as well.

Two of the female workers had gotten
pregnant 
the year before, and had to
deliver at a clinic two hours
away in Ipoh.
The doctor was willing to do the deed for

money under the table.

The new mothers now live in a makeshift
hut at the edge of the forest, nursing their
babies without any access to healthcare.

They have been jobless for two months.

Having to constantly bash through forests
at night, it has not been easy to for them
to escape from the authorities.

The nomadic lifestyle also leaves the
workers vulnerable to the rain, wind
and cold. Plastic sheets are commonly
used as bedding when they sleep in the forest.

When there are fewer raids by the
military, the group can afford to
sleep in the relative comfort of their
makeshift wooden hut, located in the
vicinity of Kampong Raja near the
edge of a farm.

However, the luxury of having a roof over
their heads also comes with the
danger of being spotted by soldiers.

Often, the workers have just seconds to
vacate the hut and retreat into the forest once
they hear the military vehicles approaching.

Many other workers share the predicament of Vincent’s group.  All the way down south in Bertam Valley, some farmers continue to shelter illegal workers because of cheap labour.


Flower farmer Wong Seng Yee says it has not been easy hiring employees over the past three months.

We need to go through months of checking with both state and federal agencies in order to bring them in legally, he said.

Farmers spend up to RM4,000 (S$1,488) just to process the documents for their workers.

.

This makes it a lot simpler for them to hire illegal workers instead.

In 2000, with a loan of 340,000 Taka
(S$5,981), Bangladeshi worker
Namar Khza succeeded in getting
himself to Cameron Highlands illegally,
a place where he would be offhandedly
known as a “bangla farm worker”.

Like many others without working permits,
he was issued a forged United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) card by
his Bangladeshi job agency—in exchange for
his passport, which he never saw again.

Government statistics estimate there to
be about 600,000 illegal immigrants in
Malaysia. And in Cameron Highlands, they
are relegated to a life in the shadows, despite
their essential role in manning the farms.

“We are the invisible farmers,”
said the 20-year-old.

In an isolated corner of a farm in Bertam Valley,

he helps prepare dinner for five men. Every member 

of the group takes turns to prepare meals.

Without a proper kitchen, Khza and his fellow
workers cook just inches away from their beds.

Occasionally, when they get hungry at
night, they sneak into neighbouring farms
to steal french beans for supper.

They would then regroup around their
makeshift stove and cook up a feast.

Four of them can consume a
10kg 
bag of rice within a week.

To avoid attracting the police’s attention,
the group alternates among several huts
every week.

Makeshift kitchens and rooms have
been built at different locations around
the four-acre farm. Khza and his friends
take extra caution not to stay at any one
spot for too long.

During their rare downtimes, there is
hardly anywhere for them to relax,
apart from the leaky and dusty temporary
spaces they now call home.

On some nights, the Bangladeshis gather
in one of the rooms which is equipped with
a television and a DVD player. There, they
unwind with snacks and Bangladeshi movies
— the only leisure activity they can afford after
a hard day’s work.

Since the start of the raids, Khza and
many other workers have also draped
black plastic sheets across the entrances
and exits of their farms. This is to block
them from the view of passers-by, especially
when they work overtime every Friday.

Close communication with
workers from other farms has
become a necessity too.

Khza’s farm colleague, Alum,
receives live updates via phone
calls every time a raid occurs.
The group takes turns to keep
watch at night. They also have
dogs standing guard at strategic
locations.

Even with all these precautions
in place, it can be hard to get a
good night’s rest.

“How do I sleep when I know that
people out there are trying to hunt
us down?” Alum griped.

There is less fear in the day. As long
as the workers stay within the farm,
they feel safe. It is easier to spot an
approaching raid.

In these grim times, the men have
also turned to building friendships
with workers from other farms.

“Talking to other workers reminds
us we are not alone in this situation,”
said Khza.

He pines for the day when the
operations taper off and things
go back to normal — when they
can finally work on the farms
without constantly dodging
the authorities.

But operations have been ongoing
for the past three months, and more
soldiers are reported to be deployed
over the course of the year.

“Only Allah knows when we
will find happiness,” Khza said.