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$3.2m lawsuit for defending Burmese migrants

A Malaysia-based Japanese multinational is lining up a multi-million dollar defamation lawsuit against a lawyer who is defending a group of Burmese workers threatened with deportation.

Electrical components’ company Asahi Kosei has denied allegations lodged by lawyer Charles Hector that it attempted to deport two workers back to Burma. The two men are among 31 who complained that their employers at the company had broken contractual obligations, including a refusal to pay the agreed salary.

Hector, who is defending the 31, went public with the allegations after receiving no response to a letter sent to Asahi Kosehi on behalf of the workers. He mustered the support of some 77 organisations in multiple countries who composed a media statement on the 11 February, as well as writing a post on his blog. It was after this that Asahi Kosei responded with their MYR10 million ($US3.27 million) legal threat.

“The attempt to go against human rights defenders personally is an attempt to suppress the public interest function that human rights activists play in highlighting violations of human rights visited on marginalised people by the bigger, more powerful employer companies,” said Pranom Somwong of the Workers Hub for Change (WH4C).

According to Malaysian government statistics, there are close to 100,000 registered Burmese workers in the country, comprising some five percent of the total registered workers. Rights group say however that hundreds of thousands additional migrants from Burma are unregistered. Given the sketchy legal status of many, violations of labour rights are believed to be common.

The situation between the 31 Burmese and their employers turned nasty on 7 February, a week after they filed their complaints, when a mob escorted by police arrived at their hostel in the Balakong township of Selangor, Malaysia, and threatened them. The mob then cut the electrics and walked off with household appliances, such as the hostel’s television and cooking utensils.

Mirroring a recent incident in Johor in Malaysia, the police allegedly nabbed two of the workers’ leaders, Thiha Soe and Aung San. They believed they were being taken to Kuala Lumpur International Airport, WH4C says, but managed to escape.

The following day the workers submitted a complaint to the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) and were preparing a complaint for the labour ministry when on 9 February they were given a new contract to sign. Accompanying the contract however was an ultimatum that if they refused to sign, they would be deported to Burma immediately.

Twenty-nine of the workers signed under pressure but Thiha Soe and Aung San refused. They were then separated and handed over to the recruitment agents who took them to unknown locations, possibly with a view to sending them back to Burma.

Asahi Kosei makes parts for a number of international brands, such as JVC, Seiko, Hitachi, Mitsubiushi, Philips and Sharp. It has denied all allegations, and told Hector that it had made all payments to the recruitment agents, thereby passing the blame onto them. But a subsequent letter sent by the veteran lawyer to the company was ignored, prompting him to go public with the case.

“The fact of the matter is that workers in a company should be the responsibility of the said company, and they cannot just avoid responsibility by saying that these are not their own workers but workers of some other company,” said Pranom.


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