KUALA LUMPUR: Li Nang, a young migrant worker wearing hot pants and high heels, stood before the statue of a gilt goddess garlanded with marigolds and fairy lights in Kuala Lumpur as she prayed for good business—and her own safety.
Malaysia’s underground community of undocumented female workers was thrust into the spotlight when news emerged that Kim Jong-Nam was assassinated by two women migrants using lethal nerve agent VX on February 13 at THE Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Since then, a Malaysian police crackdown on undocumented workers like Li has escalated—making their already vulnerable existence even more precarious.
Airport CCTV footage shows two women approaching the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and apparently rubbing his face with a cloth.
Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 25, and Doan Thi Huong, 28, from Vietnam, have since been charged with the murder and face the death penalty if found guilty.
South Korea says Jong-Un ordered the killing of his estranged sibling— who had lived overseas for years but had voiced criticism of the regime— and engaged two outsiders to carry it out.
Both women have told diplomats from their countries they were duped into believing that they were taking part in a TV prank show but Malaysian police have rejected their claims.
Little is known about them, with police saying that Huong worked at an “entertainment outlet” while Aisyah was a masseuse at a spa, but immigration experts say the secrecy surrounding their lives illustrates the clandestine existence led by thousands of undocumented Southeast Asian women migrants.
Many migrants travel to Malaysia through formal labor contracts, but thousands more take advantage of being allowed to work in Singapore and Malaysia for 30 days at a time, traveling back and forth between two or three countries and trying to earn as much as possible before their luck runs out.
Taking up jobs as cleaners, waitresses, masseuses and prostitutes, they live in the grip of a murky system, vulnerable to exploitation and harassment by police looking to shake them down for bribes.
As she prepared for work, Li, a 25-year-old Vietnamese prostitute, kept up a steady exchange of messages with her sister in Ho Chi Minh City, in an attempt to reassure relatives even as she herself feared for her safety.
“I texted her saying ‘I have to take the risk. What choice do I have? I need the money’,” Li told AFP inside a dimly lit bar.
The arrests of her compatriot Huong and Indonesian Siti have brought unwelcome attention to a community which already has much to fear from Malaysian authorities.
At a pub in the Petaling Jaya suburb, Filipino waitress Mika (not her real name) told AFP that police had intensified their efforts to hunt down illegal workers like her following Kim’s assassination.
Three of her friends working in the same bar were recently arrested by police.
“Fortunately I was off on that day. I think God saved me,” the single mother said.
“I am now living in constant fear. I do not want to be caught.”
The 35-year-old previously paid 3,600 ringgit ($800) to an employment agent to secure a long-term work visa, but he stole the money.
“Now I have a monthly visa. Before it expires I head to Thailand where I spend three nights. I give an agent a fee of 1,000 ringgit and he gets a new visa for another month,” she said.
“Life goes on like this every month.”
Malaysia, Southeast Asia’s third largest economy, is highly dependent on foreign labor.
According to a World Bank report in 2015, the country hosts some 2.1 million registered migrants and likely more than one million others who are undocumented.
Women are especially vulnerable, with agents or employers forcing some of them to live together in the same house under constant surveillance, leaving them isolated and with little to no contact with the outside world, migrant rights’ activist Aegile Fernandez told AFP.
Often, their passports are withheld so they have no means of running away, leaving them open to abuse and exploitation, said Fernandez, co-director of Tenaganita, a Malaysian non-profit focusing on migrant worker protection.
“Some are even threatened by their employers that they will be handed to immigration, or even threatened with rape,” she said.
“If you were in that situation, you would be in fear. You know there’s no way out, you just continue working.”