In nothing less than a dramatic flip-flop, Malaysia yesterday announced suspending recruitment of foreign workers from all countries, including Bangladesh, a day after Dhaka and Kuala Lumpur signed a deal over hiring workers.
More shockingly, it said all undocumented foreign workers in Malaysia would be arrested and deported -- a statement that is very significant for Bangladesh as an estimated 2 lakh of the 6 lakh Bangladeshis in Malaysia are believed to be without valid papers.
On Thursday, Malaysian Human Resources Minister Richard Riot and Bangladesh Expatriates' Welfare Minister Nurul Islam signed a memorandum of understanding on recruiting 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers through G2G Plus mechanism over the next three years.
Besides, there were reports earlier this month that Malaysia would start regularising Bangladeshi workers soon.
On February 11, Shahidul Islam, the Bangladesh high commissioner to Malaysia, told The Daily Star that the legalisation process of the undocumented Bangladeshis would “start on February 15”. The new announcement, however, is a bolt from the blue for the irregular workers who had been hoping for better jobs and better pays, when regularised.
"The suspension will be in force until the government is satisfied with the manpower needs of the industries," Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said at a meeting with soldiers at the Muara Tuang Camp, Sarawak, according to Malaysia's state news agency, Bernama.
Hamidi, who is also home minister and head of the committee on recruiting foreign workers, said Malaysia would focus on the “foreign worker rehiring programme and step up enforcement to ensure that no more foreigners entered the country as workers.”
"Foreign workers without valid documents or [who] have overstayed in the country will be arrested and sent back to their country of origin," he said.
He hoped Malaysians, especially the youths, would respond to the government call for local people to take up the jobs now held by foreigners to become the nation's workforce to drive the national economy.
Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies President Mohammed Abul Basher termed Malaysia's decision as “death of a child before birth”.
Its reasons must be internal and political and that Baira does not have any comment on that, he said.
But he hoped that once the legalisation process was complete, Malaysia would start recruiting workers from Bangladesh.
WHY THE SUSPENSION?
The Malaysian deputy prime minister's announcement in June last year that the country would recruit 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers drew numerous controversies.
Malaysian trade unions and rights groups decried the announcement, arguing that the country was hosting over 2 million irregular migrants who needed to be regularised before making any fresh recruitment amid downturn of Malaysian economy.
The criticism became sharp when Malaysian media revealed some Malaysian private companies like Bestinet, Real Time Networking and Synerflux had been lobbying Bangladesh and Malaysian governments to win contracts. These companies -- directly or indirectly -- were owned by relatives of ruling party ministers.
Lately, Baira and Bangladesh High Commission in Kuala Lumpur also warned that Malaysia's appointing a company -- Synerflux -- to regulate the labour recruitment would establish a monopoly.
Baira in a letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on February 16 said a syndicate led by Synerflux was behind the labour deal, and its main objective was to make profits out of the recruitment.
Citing 2014 statistics, the Malay Economic Action Council CEO Nizam Mahshar on Wednesday told media in Kuala Lumpur that there were 3.1 million foreign workers in Malaysia against its need for 1.72 million, mainly in low-skilled category jobs.
The surplus of foreign workers has led to a growing competition with local workers, affecting the wages of lower-income group, he said.
Liew Chin Tong, an MP of Malaysia's largest opposition Democratic Action Party, opposed recruiting new foreign workers, saying it would not help Malaysia's automation, mechanisation, innovation and technological upgrades.
Explaining the internal dynamics of Malaysia's decision, Mohammad Harun Al Rashid, coordinator of a regional NGO, Caram Asia, said the opposition, trade unions and rights groups were angered by Ahmad Zahid Hamidi's dealing with the foreign workers.
“If there was a real need of workers, there should be an assessment and consultation with the businesses. That was not done,” he told The Daily Star from Kuala Lumpur by phone yesterday.
Because of such an attitude of the government, common Malaysians also opposed the government move, and often there has been xenophobic treatment against the Bangladeshi migrants there.
Only on Thursday, a Bangladeshi was beaten by a mob for alleged rape of a Malaysian girl, he said, adding that taking law into one's own hand was nothing but xenophobic under the current context.
HANGING IN THE BALANCE
The fate of the undocumented Bangladeshis, meanwhile, is uncertain.
On the announcement of their arrest and deportation, Harun said the development was conflicting as Malaysia was in the process of legalising irregular migrants.
Agile Fernandez, director of migrant rights body Tenaganita based in Kuala Lumpur, said a large number of Bangladeshi workers in Malaysia were undocumented because they were cheated by the agents and employers.
“If they are arrested and deported, it will be a total injustice to them,” she told The Daily Star over the phone.
Fernandez suggested that the irregular workers be legalised and recruited first. Then, the Malaysian authorities should assess the need and recruit new workers, if needed.