A picture of Vietnamese workers carried last week in the Malaysian newspaper, The Star, shows them sobbing at their home in Penang, Malaysia
For now, the ordeal of 69 Vietnamese workers stuck in Malaysia without papers is over.
Their employer had reportedly failed to pay due taxes or conduct visa extension procedures, and provided sparse accommodation and meager food rations.
On March 19, a day after the plight of 42 women was exposed by a Malaysian newspaper, the workers were sent to a shelter in Kuala Lumpur.
At a meeting later, the Immigration Affairs Division and Foreign Workers Management Division under the Malaysian Ministry of Home Affairs agreed on carry out relevant procedures to extend visa for the workers to continue working or to return to Vietnam, depending on their wish.
The information was confirmed on March 20 by the Overseas Labor Management Department an agency under Vietnamese Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs that oversees the affairs of Vietnamese workers abroad as well as relevant human resource firms.
The 69 Vietnamese workers were sent to work for Asmana a Malaysian company supplying cleaning and other services to hospitals in the northwest coastal state of Penang in June 2010. They were contracted to do so by Vietnamese firm Viet Ha Ha Tinh (Vihatico) through its Malaysian counterpart Houseproud Asia.
Luu Quang Binh, Vihatico chairman, said they had contracted with Asmana to employ the workers for three years.
However, Asmana had not registered the residence and relevant procedures for the workers to stay and work as contracted, he said.
"˜Surviving on rice'
The workers' plight was first revealed by The Star in two reports on March 17 and 18 which said 42 women were living in poor condition and "surviving mainly on rice for the past few months.
"The women's plight came to light when their neighbors informed the authorities after finding the noise made by the women, especially at night, intolerable.
"One of the women, known only as Hai, said most of them were jobless and could not send money back to their families," the paper said.
When The Star reporters visited the house, they found three women that appeared sickly. Hai claimed that their agent would send 20kg of rice to them every three days that they would add salt to their rice for flavor.
"The women cried when relating their misfortune to Pulau Tikus assemblyman Koay Teng Hai who visited them," the paper reported.
It quoted Koay as saying 34 Nepalese and Vietnamese men, aged between 20 and 40, who are in the same situation as the 42 Vietnamese women, would also be sent to a shelter in Kuala Lumpur.
According to Vihatico, the 69 Vietnamese workers mostly come from poor families in the north-central provinces of Ha Tinh and Nghe An.
Their relatives were worried for them after many Vietnamese newspapers published their stories, citing The Star.
Nguyen Thi Phuong, whose daughter Dang Thi Chau was among the workers, said she was told that her daughter had been detained by Malaysian police.
"About ten days ago, Chau phoned me and complained that she lost her job and did not have money to send back. She was living on the help of relatives and friends there," Phuong told the Tien Phong (Vanguard) newspaper.
She said Chau was married and had two young children. She used to work as a housemaid before borrowing VND20 million to pay the fees for getting work in Malaysia.
"We hope she can find another job soon because her family has to rely on her earnings," she said, adding that her husband was also a daily laborer.
In a nearby house, Dong Thuan Thong was worried about his wife Duong Thi Xuan because he had not been able to contact her lately.
"She had contracted to work for three years. But things became worse only after one year," he said.
On March 20, Vihatico representatives visited the families to inform that the workers' situation was not dire and that they were working with relevant agencies to help them.
"˜Not so bad'
Following the media reports in Malaysia and local media, the Vietnamese Overseas Labor Management Department asked the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Human Resources and Ministry of Home Affairs asking for support in solving the problem.
According to Dao Cong Hai, deputy director of the Overseas Labor Management Department, the situation was "not so bad" for the workers and they were not left starving in poor living conditions.
He said the workers used to have stable income of between 1,200-1,500 Ringgit (US$390-487) per month.
However, their employer did not extend their visa so that they could continue to work legally.
After the Malaysian Immigration Affairs Division on February 8 detained three of the workers for lack of relevant papers, they came to find out that Asmana had not paid due taxes or extended the visa for the workers.
Meanwhile, Faber Company the actual company that contracted with the hospitals to supply human resources ended the contract with Asmana in mid-February for other procedural failures.
Since then, Asmana had only paid part of the workers' salary about 500 Ringgit and supplied them with accommodation.
Binh, chairman of Vihatico, said the Malaysia's Labor Management Division had requested Asmana six times between February 26 and March 7 to complete the procedures for the workers to either continue working or return home.
The company promised to do so but took no action, he said.
At a meeting with the Labor and Expert Management Board of the Vietnamese Embassy in Malaysia on March 20, Pe Ravin, business development manager of the Medik Company, which also supplies hospitals with miscellaneous services, said his company would receive the Vietnamese workers who wanted to continue working in Malaysia.
He said they would be able to do the same work, also at Penang hospitals, and with similar salaries that they received from Asmana.
He also pledged to extend visas for Vietnamese workers and even extend their contract after three years if they performed their jobs well.