As the flood waters prepare to rise at Sarawak’s latest dam site in Murum, highly disturbing evidence has been passed to Sarawak Report concerning the use of indentured labour (a form of illegal slavery) on the project.
Thousands of Chinese, Burmese, Bagladeshi and Pakistani workers were imported to build the dam, in what was pristine rainforest and the traditional territory of the semi-nomadic Western Penan.
Some, who have escaped, told reporters last week that they were not being paid.
Of even greater concern is further information that was passed on to the same team of international journalists, who managed to penetrate the heavily restricted Murum Dam site, about systematic rapes by outsiders of the indigenous Penan women of the area.
These serious allegations come just weeks after the state company, Sarawak Energy (SEB), was promoting the project as its model for a new approach to corporate, social and environmental responsibility at the International Hydropower Conference, which was controversially held in Kuching in May.
SEB is chaired by the Chief Minister’s cousin and key proxy, Hamed Sepawi, who has been the beneficiary of numerous contracts, concessions and strategic public appointments in the state.
The Chief Executive since 2009, the Norwegian Torstein Sjotveit, has taken to admitting that past dam projects in Sarawak were not carried out according to international standards and guidelines.
This includes Murum itself, which was notoriously begun in total secrecy for the first two years of construction, presumably owing to the sensitivity of destroying the spectacular homeland of the Penan.
This famously peaceful race have stood by helplessly for the past 4 years, as Taib’s crony logging companies have clear felled tens of thousands of hectares of fabulous rainforest, without providing the slightest form of compensation to the dependent tribes.
Sjotveit’s argument is that he has now totally reformed the process. However, these latest revelations about slave labour undermine such claims, as does the total lack of evidence over due process in handling the indigenous rights of the Penan.
Sjotveit is not helped by the reports implicating this highly paid executive himself, as being complicit in corruption. At issue is the handing out of key SEB projects, such as the main hydropower transmission lines, to companies owned by the Chief Minister’s own son.
More on Penan rape concerns
But of even deeper concern is the new information encountered by the team of journalists from Japan, India and also Sarawak, who managed to penetrate the heavily guarded area last week. It relates to the long-running issue of sexual exploitation of the indigenous tribal Penan communities in the area by imported foreign labour.
The reporters managed to visit the settlements, which are under intense government pressure to relocate, despite their demands for fair compensation not having been met.
The journalists noticed a number of young children who appeared to be ‘Indian/Pakistani looking’ rather than Penan, said one of the reporters, Radio Free Sarawak’s Peter John Jaban.
Villagers explained that these were the children of ‘Sabat’ (pedlars/ travelling salesmen), who have been arriving in the communities:
“These individuals are linked to the work camps that have sprung up in the area and they come selling things. Mattresses, carpets, TV… things the local people cannot afford. But they sell them in instalments, demanding payments each month. This way they push up the price three times or higher and often the families, who have almost no income, now their forest products are destroyed by logging, cannot pay. These Sabat take advantage of this situation by forcing themselves on the women who are ‘indebted’. Often they will come during the daytime when the men are out hunting for food.” [Radio Free Sarawak reporter, Peter John Jaban]
The Penan are Asia’s last nomadic jungle tribe and the poorest and most vulnerable grouping in Sarawak. They have been worst hit by the mass logging of the territory and the destruction of the rivers, which has deprived them of their major food sources and the products they once used for native crafts to raise money.
Astonishingly, despite the destruction of their traditional lands, the Sarawak State Government of Taib Mahmud has seen fit to offer no compensation and virtually no support out of the billions raised from this plunder of natural resources.
Equally, despite federal government reports that have upheld complaints about the rape of tribal women by incoming loggers and company workers, Sarawak’s Chief Minister and his entourage have adamantly refused to acknowledge the problem.
In 2010 James Masing, Taib’s Land Development Minister (whose chief preoccupation is to double the area under large company oil palm plantation from 1 million to 2 million hectares) dismissed shocking evidence of rape against children as young as ten by saying that the deeply Christian tribes are ‘very good storytellers’ and ‘naturally promiscuous’ and ‘normally start relationships as young as twelve‘.
Deputy Chief Minister, Alfred Jabu, has likewise announced that the evidence of several rape attacks gathered in NGO reports were ‘a waste of time to investigate’.
Time to stop boasting and produce concrete evidence of reform
With Torstein Sjotveit at the helm of Sarawak Energy’s new image drive, there has been much boasting of late.
Not just at the International Hydropower Conference, but anywhere one cares to mention, incuding SEB’s website, about the company’s corporate social responsibility programme and its concern for communities and the environment affected by Taib’s despotic visions for industrialising the rainforest.
However, the evidence shows that the company has still spectacularly failed to begin to fulfil any of the requirements of international protocols or the human and indigenous rights declarations signed up to by Malaysia.
When this blog revealed the government’s secret resettlement plan last year, involving ‘compensation payments’ of less than half the minimum wage per family for just 4 years, the Penan people blockaded the dam site in protest and the Sarawak State Government promised to work with the community in order to continue construction.
However, a recent report by the NGO International Rivers has detailed how communities are still being pressured to move from the site without any legally binding guarantees of compensation or indeed any of their perfectly legitimate requests being met.
“One village has already been resettled. With no legally binding commitments in place, the resettled communities will soon become completely dependent on the goodwill of the government. After resettlement takes place, the villagers will have little leverage left to negotiate and ultimately will face pressure to accept whatever the government offers.” [International Rivers, ‘Murum Dam, What Has Changed?’]
International Rivers has also observed how Taib’s government has chosen only to negotiate with a government-selected group of ‘representatives’ from the Penan, who have been rewarded for their cooperation and apparent support of the dam.
The reporters visiting the site last week say that the manoeuvrings have severely divided the community.
“Some people can see how the people at Sungai Asap [relocation from earlier Bakun Dam] were treated, so they are still refusing to move” [Peter John Jaban]
The accommodation in the resettlement areas was inspected by the journalists, who described the buildings as substandard, cramped and uncomfortable. “Worse than Sungai Asap”, explains Jaban, referring to the Bakun Dam resettlement area, where over a decade later communities are still awaiting the compensation promised in their case by the government.
One of the re-settlements, Long Singu, has been placed in an area denuded of forest and covered in an oil palm plantation. That plantation has been neglected by the company ever since news came through that the area was being re-designated for the Penan, reports Jaban and the trees are yellow and dying.
The settlement is hours away from remaining jungle after the region was stripped in advance of Taib’s dam plans.
“These people dont know how to manage oil palm. They don’t know how to plant rice, vegetable, sugar – anything, they don’t know. They fish in the river and eat sago. But there is no more fish in the river, no more sago, not even an antu [ghost] could live in this region anymore” observed Jaban
Returning from the Murum area the team of reporters passed by the stinking downstream region of the existing Bakun Dam. Over a year after its inundation the huge, stagnant lake continues to pour noxious methane gasses into the atmosphere and communities are fearful of the effects on their health.
“Everything is coated in brown dust kicked up from the hydro-electric plant”, says Jaban. “Trees, power lines, homes, they are all covered in this rust. They worry about the insides of their children’s lungs”. Who wouldn’t?
It was here the reporting team allegedly discovered a number of escapees from the Murum Dam building camp, trying to scratch a living from whatever jobs they can find.
Hired by agents, many of the thousands of imported workers at Murum are either barely paid or paid nothing at all, they explained to the team. That was why they ran away.
They added that what payments are made are by company cheque, which in this highly remote area they are obliged to cash through their company’s own cashier. For this they are charged a 10% ‘administration fee’!
The report opens the lid on yet another disgraceful scandal in Sarawak. The system of near slavery operated by Taib Mahmud’s mammoth exploitation of the state’s natural resources and developing plantation economy.
SEB carries nothing on its boastful website about its commitments to its workers or standards regarding the terms and conditions for employees, a key aspect of normal corporate and social responsibility.
Therefore, Sarawak Report suggests it is time that the enormously paid CEO ($1.2million per annum plus perks) and Chairman Hamed Sepawi improved their company’s performance beyond claims and targets and boasts to genuine, concrete moves to perform its legal responsibilities.
They should start by investigating these concerns about slave labour and also the systematic rape of Penan women in the region, where they claim they are working in partnership with the communities affected by their activities .
And Sarawak Energy Bhd, should continue by fulfilling to the letter the obligations towards indigenous people’s laid out in binding international protocols at all its dam sites, obligations that are currently being consistently broken in the most flagrant fashion.
Meanwhile, any international companies seeking to do business with Sarawak Energy or the discredited Sarawak State Government should consider their reputations.