In a significant judgment, a Malaysian court on Friday directed the employer of 52 Indian workers to pay all wages owed, return a levy paid to a Malaysian employment agent and pay for their to and fro air fares and legal costs.
Penang high court Judge Kamalanathan Ratnam told Malaysian company Chin Well Fasteners to honour the promises made to the workers and pay all the arrears due to them within a week.
The workers had been paid RM 350 (approximately Rs 4,600) a month but the court ruled that the firm was duty-bound to pay them RM 750 (approximately Rs 10,000) a month along with other standard perks.
The judge also said the firm must pay for their air fare to and from Malaysia, as well as reimburse them around $1,000 paid to a recruitment agent.
The cases came to light in October last year and allegedly involved three Malaysian companies and two Indian agents with counterparts in Malaysia.
Chin Well Fasteners and Tong Yong Metals, both located in Penang, a northern state of Malaysia, were provided labour by Chennai-based Mithun Travels.
They also had a Malaysian agent, Amarjeet Singh, to recruit the workers, who mostly came from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
"It is indeed a sad case," Judge Ratnam said in his ruling.
"This whole episode is a conspiracy by the defendant, Amarjeet and Mithun, to cheat innocent workers who had mortgaged their land, pledged or sold their jewellery and had signed promissory notes so that they could earn a fair and reasonable sum from their employment. Instead they had been cheated, degraded, denied food and basic amenities," the judge said.
Relieved workers, who stayed in Malaysia to fight their case rather than cut their losses and return home, welcomed the victory, but said they had another score to settle back home with an agent in Chennai.
The workers say they each paid around Rs 100,000 to Chennai-based Mithun Travels to get a job in Malaysia for which they were promised a basic salary of around Rs 10,000 per month.
"We are very happy and want to go home as soon as we get our dues," Sampath Kumar Vellingiri who came from Coimbatore told PTI.
"When we go home we will ask Mithun Travels to return our money. It is because of them we have suffered," Sampath added.
P Preaith (23) from Kerala was also bitter about being set up with such a raw deal. "The conditions here are so bad we definitely want to go home and also ask Mithun to return our money," he said.
The workers' lawyers applauded the judge's decision.
"This is indeed a good judgment and will have an impact on such cases in future," Mohideen A Kader, the workers' lead counsel told PTI.
"A lot of abuse is going on," he said, adding, "The Indian government should play a more active role in ensuring the welfare of Indian workers."
The judge has asked the Indian and Malaysian governments to work out a procedure for the recruitment of manual labourers to avoid a repeat of this episode.
The Consumer Association of Penang (CAP), which has been helping the Indian workers, believed the judgment would help other foreign workers in Malaysia.
"The employers will now know that they can be made liable," said M Gopalakrishnan from CAP.
The judge verbally declined the company's plea for an interim stay on the ruling. However, the company is free to make a formal application for a stay and also to appeal against the ruling.
According to sources, the company is pursuing both the options. The judge has asked for estimates of the amount due to each worker to be produced in court within a week.