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The plight of duped Bangladeshi migrants in Malaysia must end

To reverse this evil cycle, the two governments should immediately dismantle the private syndicate in the recruitment system
Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants from Myanmar ride in a truck as they arrive at the naval base in Langkawi on May 14, 2015, to be transferred to a mainland immigration depot.

Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants from Myanmar ride in a truck as they arrive at the naval base in Langkawi on May 14, 2015, to be transferred to a mainland immigration depot. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 02, 2024 02:56 AM GMT
Updated: June 04, 2024 04:40 AM GMT

Following months of media reporting, UN experts on April 19 issued a statement expressing dismay over the situation of Bangladeshi migrants who had traveled to Malaysia for jobs through the official labor migration process.

The UN experts must have a valid reason for singling out Bangladeshis as Malaysia hires foreign workers from 14 other Asian countries.

The summary of their statement issued in Geneva by the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner revealed that thousands of Bangladeshi workers remained jobless for months without work permits in Malaysia while employers confiscated their passports.

This is despite spending large sums of money to get there through criminal networks both in Bangladesh and Malaysia and the reported involvement of certain high-level officials in both governments.

The statement noted that many migrants risk arrest, detention, ill-treatment, and deportation. They are indebted, and their health conditions are deteriorating, with no proper food, hygiene, or housing.

The UN experts called for urgent measures to address the “dire humanitarian situation of migrants” and protect them from exploitation, criminalization, and other human rights abuses.

According to Bangladesh’s Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training, over 400,000 Bangladeshi workers went to Malaysia since late 2022 through some 100 Bangladeshi recruiting agencies approved by Malaysia.

This was part of the efforts by nations to revive the economy post-Covid pandemic. Before 2022, an estimated 400,000 Bangladeshis were already working in the Southeast Asian country. According to migration activists and researchers, currently, between 100,000 and 200,000 Bangladeshi migrants are stranded there, either jobless or doing underpaid jobs, and incurring more debt.

Why are these migrants facing such dire conditions?

The answer lies in a statement made by Malaysian Home Minister Datuk Seri Saifuddin Nasution Ismail on Oct. 23 last year, disclosing that a total of 667,418 foreign workers had entered the country, against the government’s forecast of 518,000 under the “relaxation and recalibration program.”

Nepal-based migrant rights activist Andy Hall, who monitors migrations in Southeast Asia, said Malaysian authorities allowed companies to recruit excessive foreign workers under the so-called “relaxation and recalibration program.” Most of those “excess” workers were from Bangladesh.

These companies recruit excess foreign workers because the more they hire, the more money they make.

Bangladeshi migrants spend an average of 500,000 taka ($4,500) to get to Malaysia, although according to the deal signed by the two countries in 2022, each migrant was supposed to pay only 80,000 taka. The rest of the money goes to the intermediaries. Many employers also participate by getting more than the required number of approvals for recruiting foreign workers.

Many questions have been raised about the criteria Malaysian authorities use to select the 100 recruiting agents from Bangladesh. But as of now, no answers are forthcoming. Industry insiders concede these agents are part of the “influential quarters” that pull strings in Malaysia and Bangladesh, pushing up the recruitment cost.

Malaysian authorities have stopped issuing new approvals for foreign workers amid the dire humanitarian situation across Malaysia. However, many migrants have already fled the employers who failed to provide them with the promised jobs. They have become undocumented migrants and are being detained.

Eventually, they will be deported. Those failing to pay for air tickets will languish in jail. Those who manage to evade arrest will have to resort to illegal means, including bribing the police.

Interestingly, this is not the first time that a surplus migrant labor situation has arisen in the Bangladesh-Malaysia corridor. The Southeast Asian country has often frozen the recruitment process since it began in 1996. The doors were shut for Bangladeshi workers nearly a decade from 1997, except in 2000. Migration resumed in 2006 but stopped in early 2009.

A government-level recruitment arrangement was devised in 2012, but it never took off, allegedly because of lobbying from influential business and political quarters.

The recruitment through the private sector was resumed in 2017 under an arrangement called G2G Plus involving a syndicate of 10 Bangladeshi recruiting agents. The then-Mahathir Mohamad government suspended it in September 2018, citing corruption, migrants’ exploitation, debt bondage, and forced labor.

The migrant laborers have remained victims for all these years. There have never been any genuine efforts by the two governments to rectify the systematic flaws. Over the years, many migrant rights activists and civil society groups have also developed fatigue, so the issue goes unnoticed.

There have been a series of media reports over the past few months, but UN agencies, particularly the International Organization for Migration and International Labor Organization, have yet to take any concrete steps to correct the situation.

It is the migrant workers who pay the cost — mental and physical — and some may end up paying even with their lives. The very dream of changing their fate is often shattered.

To reverse this evil cycle, the two governments should immediately dismantle the private syndicate in the recruitment system and ensure a zero-cost migration model where employers pay all recruitment costs.

South Korea, which once recruited foreign workers through the private sector, established a foolproof system called the Employment Permit System in 2003. This system ensures workers’ rights from the beginning to the end of the migration cycle and requires genuine political will.

Without such a genuine political will, no change in migration patterns from Bangladesh to Malaysia is possible.

*Porimol Palma is a diplomatic correspondent with The Daily Star, Bangladesh. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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