For nearly 100 Vietnamese women workers of the Maxter Glove Co in Klang City in the central Malaysian state of Selanggor, home is not a cozy and comfortable place to hang out; they live on the back of old container trucks. Each container, which measures less than 15 square metres wide and 2.5 metres high, is typically a bedroom and a living room for eight to 10 workers.
The workers share a bathroom and a tiny kitchen with hundreds of other workers from Myanmar and Bangladesh.
"We have to wake up very early every day to avoid the bathroom queue. Otherwise we'll end up late for work and we will get a pay cut," said Nguyen Thi Sang from Dong Nai Province.
Workers pay 20 ringgit (USD6.6) each to rent this "house" each month.
Factory owners had cut the electricity several times as a punishment when workers complained about their poor living conditions or wanted a salary rise, even on days with temperatures reaching over 40 degrees Celsius, Sang said.
Ready to strike
Early last month, the Vietnamese workers gathered together to start a strike. They wanted better living conditions and a refund of their visa fees. In April 2009, the Malaysian Government passed a law waiving the visa fee, but the workers said 120 ringgit (USD40) were still deducted from their salary every month.
Salaries range from 500-600 ringgit (USD164-196) per month even though they were promised about USD400 prior to leaving Vietnam, said Duong Thi Tien, a worker at Maxter Glove.
"None of the Maxter Glove workers have been registered with the Vietnamese Overseas Employment Office in Malaysia, which is a requirement under the Vietnamese overseas labour law," said Nguyen Hai Ly, a Vietnamese embassy official.
Ly said many Malaysian firms were currently short of workers so several Vietnamese middlemen have taken advantage of the situation by illegally bringing Vietnamese workers to Malaysia without reporting them to authorities to avoid taxes and other regulatory responsibilities.
"Therefore, when workers have problems with their Malaysian bosses, they don't have anyone to rely on and of course strikes and other negative actions occur," he said.
Tien came to Maxter Glove through the Nhat Duyen Company in northern Bac Giang Province. She said the company denied any responsibility for Tien after she departed for Malaysia. "They said it's my responsibility to either earn money here or not, and that their job was done once I left Vietnam," she said.
Tien and most of her co-workers didn't receive any training before they started working at Maxter Glove.
"The workers are receiving smaller wages than promised because Maxter Glove pays people based on the number of products they make rather than a fixed salary. For the first two months, their salary is low because the workers are still learning how to do the work. But once they have been there for three months, they should be making more money," said Nhat Duyen's Director Nguyen Thi Duyen.
She said her company couldn't provide training because it didn't have the technique for making rubber gloves in Vietnam.
She also said that when their company sent workers overseas, they told them in advance what living conditions they should expect. "But all of the living conditions around Maxter Glove are the same. There is nothing better," said Duyen.
Three weeks after the strike, the workers were still living in the same conditions and earning the same salary. "We asked the workers to be patient and resume normal work while the embassy tries to find a solution," Ly said. The Vietnamese Overseas Employment Office in Malaysia, under the embassy and the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MoLISA), has sent a request to the ministry in Vietnam to ask the middlemen who sponsored these workers to Malaysia to find a solution to the situation, he said.
Deputy head of Vietnamese Overseas Employee Management Department under MoLISA Dao Cong Hai said there was a regulation requiring all agencies that wish to send Vietnamese overseas to work must be inspected in advance by his department. "All the working and salary conditions should be agreed to by both sides prior to departure. Agencies that failed to follow those procedures will be investigated and penalised," he said.
Vietnam started sending workers to Malaysia in 1992. To date, there are about 100,000 Vietnamese workers in Malaysia. In 2010, the number of workers sent abroad hit a record high with almost 12,000 workers, four times more than in 2009, MoLISA reported.