Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen has lately witten to Law Minister Anisul Huq seeking amendment to the trafficking prevention law, to potentially leash the capacity of law enforcers in raiding recruitment agencies.
There were complaints about "abuse of the law" and "harassment" of recruitment agencies by the law enforcers in recent times, the minister said in his September 21 letter.
The section of the The Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act 2012 which the foreign minister wants amended, is Section 20 (1) and (2), titled "Preventive search and seizure".
The section allows the law enforcement agencies the "power to conduct preventive search, to enter into any premises and to seize any equipment or proof or document used or likely to be used in the commission of any offence under this Act."
The section states that the "search may be undertaken without a warrant if there is reasonable ground to believe that there are equipment or materials for the commission of any offence under this Act". It also adds that two civilian witnesses must be present at the operation.
Foreign Minister Momen stated in the letter that the anti-trafficking law was enacted to prevent human trafficking, prosecute human traffickers, and protect victims, while the "Overseas Employment and Migrants Act 2013 " is used to fairly regulate the manpower export industry. "A conflicting provision in the two laws is creating obstacles in manpower export," he wrote.
"Section 20(1) and (2) of The Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act, 2012 allows the law enforcers uninterrupted power, and there are complaints that this is creating abuse of the law," the letter continued.
"You must be aware that legal manpower recruiting agencies are not at all involved in human trafficking or fraudulent activities like these. The Ministry of Home Affairs has received multiple complaints regarding harassment of recruiting agencies by law enforcers, but these instances of harassment have yet to stop.
"It needs to be mentioned that the former state minister of the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment sent a semi-official letter on June 25, 2019 seeking an end to the harassment of recruiting agencies by the police. I too have received multiple requests from the members of the recruiting agency association at different times, seeking a cancellation of the above-mentioned law.
"Under these circumstances, I would like to especially request you to partially amend Section 20(1) and (2) of The Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act 2012 to stop the unnecessary harassment of recruiting agencies by police in the name of preventing human trafficking."
The letter was also forwarded to the home minister, overseas employment minister, and the chairman of Female Worker Recruiting Agencies Association and Abdul Alim, the chairman of Female Worker Recruiting Agencies Association of Bangladesh.
Contacted, Law Minister Anisul Huq said, "We will examine the laws and scrutinise the request. I cannot make any comments about this now."
The Daily Star called Foreign Minister Momen several times in the last two days, but he informed thrice that he was busy and would talk later. Expatriates' Welfare Minister Imran Ahmad could not be reached.
Abdul Alim, the chairman of the recruiting agency association, said he complained to the government several times about the anti-trafficking law being "unfair" on agencies.
"This law is hurting us. An anti-trafficking law should be for traffickers. Trafficking involves coercion, abduction, and clandestine operations. Migration is not trafficking because it involves two governments, and several layers of validation," said Alim, who is also the managing director of SA Trading.
"This law was formulated by foreign-funded NGOs to implicate us," he claimed.
The United States Department of State publishes a Trafficking in Persons Report each year. The 2020 report on Bangladesh stated "Because a number of government officials, including parliamentarians, maintained close ties to foreign employment agencies, there were concerns such officials had conflicts of interest in approving migrant-friendly practices, such as prosecution of abusive recruitment agencies and increasing protections for migrant workers."
In September 2019, Bangladesh ratified the "Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children", a protocol under an international treaty called United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.
Among other forms of trafficking, the protocol states that "trafficking in persons" include recruitment, transportation and harbouring of persons through fraud, deception, abuse of power, for the purpose of exploitation. According to the protocol, exploitation includes forced labour, servitude and conditions similar to slavery.
The protocol also states that "The consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation set forth [above] shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth [above] has been used."
Shameem Ahmed Chowdhury Noman, secretary general of Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (BAIRA), said, "How is it that a recruiting agency can be prosecuted based on the words of a worker, without proof? Their offices are raided publicly, and media trials are held. A recruiting agent was arrested for sending a 14-year-old girl to Saudi Arabia who died of torture. Her passport said she was 26 -- why not hold the passport giving agency responsible? The embassies are not functional either."
His comment referred to the case of Umme Kulsum who died of torture in Saudi Arabia and whose body came back on September 9. On September 17, Rapid Action Battalion-3 raided the office of MH Trade International, the recruiting agent that sent her to Saudi Arabia.
During the raid, members of recruiting agencies protested in front of the office, under the banner of Recruiting Agency Oikyo Parishad. Their chairperson Tipu Sultan told this newspaper, "We can't be culpable for crimes of employers. We want the law repealed."
A further investigation by The Daily Star revealed that the agency was responsible for sending at least four more female workers into conditions where they were raped, thrown off the roof, starved, and beaten. The workers claimed to this correspondent that they had all contacted the proprietor of MH Trade International, Mokbul Hossain.
According to standard contracts of manpower export, once an employer has paid for a worker, if the worker chooses to leave the employment for whatever reason, the Bangladeshi manpower agency must pay $2,000 or provide a replacement worker to the employer. In the case of MH Trade International, at least four women said they came back before completing their employment.
So Mokbul Hossain was asked by this newspaper whether he sent women as replacement or he paid the money.
"If a woman came back without completing her contract, we paid back $2,000 that the employer had given for her. The local office in Saudi Arabia either found another worker, or paid on our behalf, and that money was adjusted from our account," he had claimed.
Asked if he had receipts to prove that he paid $2,000 for every abused woman who came back without completing their contracts, he had said he had no receipts.
Assistant Inspector General (media) Sohel Rana of Police Headquarters and the Additional Deputy Inspector General Sheikh Rezaul Haider of Criminal Investigation Department said that they only raided and arrested people from recruiting agencies when there was clear evidence. Police sources claimed they found the involvement of at least 30 recruiting agencies in trafficking.
Rab Media Wing Director Lt Col Ashiq Billah said, "The anti-trafficking law is very realistic. Meanwhile, we are also creating awareness about trafficking."
Between October 2019 and September of this year, Rab-3 raided offices of 10 recruiting agencies. Three cases were filed last month, one related to labour trafficking in Brunei, and two related to labour trafficking in Saudi Arabia, and six people were arrested.
"I truly hope that good businessmen are not harassed, but let not something be done that will allow traffickers to get away. Migration and trafficking become cross-cutting issues when someone is sent abroad and his or her rights are violated, when a worker is exploited. Trafficking in the name of migration should be recognised," said Shariful Hasan, programme head of BRAC Migration Programme.