Agents in Malaysia have swindled a huge sum of money from thousands of Bangladeshi workers in the Southeast Asian country, who, over the last two years, had applied to regularise their immigration status, victims and researchers said.
The exploitation of workers began after Malaysia declared a rehiring programme in February 2016 and appointed three private companies -- MyEG, Iman Resources Sdn Bhd and Bukti Megah (BM) Sdn Bhd -- for processing documents of irregular foreign workers, including Bangladeshis.
The three Malaysian companies in turn subcontracted the work to hundreds of Malaysian agents who would liaison with undocumented migrants across the country.
This is where manipulation, bribery and even cheating took place on a massive scale.
The official fee the three companies were supposed to charge for the regularisation of the workers was 1,150 Malaysian Ringgit (1RM: 20.36 TK). Including insurance and medical test fees totalling RM 350 and an annual levy of RM 2,400, which the employer is legally obligated to pay, the highest amount an irregular migrant was supposed to pay was RM 3,900, said a Bangladeshi broker in Kuala Lumpur on condition of anonymity.
However, according to migrants interviewed, the agents collected double or even triple the amount in different phases of registration -- collecting fingerprint, medical test report and final submission of the application to the immigration department. The agents charged fees ranging from RM 6,000 to 10,000 for each.
In many cases the migrants even had to bribe the employers for acquiring papers that showed they were hiring the foreign workers.
“LIVING IN A LIMBO”
Some eight lakh foreign workers applied to the immigration department for work permits under the rehiring programme, the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) Executive Director Shamsuddin Bardan said.
Considering that this figure may not show the true picture, as many agents had tricked migrants by taking money from them for the permits without filing any documents, the amount of money the agents received is “astronomical”.
Of some 10 lakh Bangladeshis working in Malaysia, half were undocumented, said an official at the Bangladesh High Commission in Kuala Lumpur, adding that almost all of the five lakh undocumented ones had applied for regularisation but did not get it.
“Even if the minimum amount of 6,000 Ringgit is considered, the five lakh Bangladeshis have paid 300 crore Ringgit, which is more than Tk 6,077 crore,” said Mohammad Harun Al Rashid, a Bangladeshi migrant rights activist in Kuala Lumpur.
Another problem was that the Bangladesh High Commission official did not know of the number of Bangladeshis who were issued work permits under the rehiring programme.
Bangladeshi migrants in Selangar, Kuala Lumpur and Melaka told this correspondent that not more than 20 percent of the applicants for regularisation got the work permits.
“This is a precarious situation. They paid so much of their hard-earned money but are still living in a limbo. Thousands of migrants are facing detention and risks of deportation,” Harun said.
Between July 1 and last week, 10,495 workers from Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia, the Philippines, India and Pakistan have been held, Immigration Department Director-General Mustafar Ali said.
The exact number of the detained Bangladeshis could not be confirmed. However, Mustafar on September 4, said over 30,000 foreign workers had been detained since January and around 6,000 of them were Bangladeshis.
A Bangladeshi migrant, Saiful Islam, while describing his sufferings, said he paid 5,000 Ringgit to a Bangladeshi agent towards the end of November in 2016, but the agent disappeared before the final submission of his application to the immigration department. After failing to trace the agent, Saiful applied for a work permit through an agent of MyEG again in the middle of 2017.
“But I'm yet to receive the work permit,” he told this correspondent at a restaurant in Cyberjaya on September 12.
“I don't know why the immigration department has not issued my work permit. I am living in fear of arrest,” added Saiful.
NO REDRESS YET
Bardan, the MEF executive director, gave a brief picture of the applicants' status. He said of the eight lakh applicants some 3.5 lakh had been approved so far, while around some one lakh applications were rejected. The rest could be waiting for approval from the Malaysian home ministry.
He, however, expressed surprise at how only 800,000 undocumented foreign workers had applied when there was an estimated 30 lakh such workers in Malaysia.
Tian Chua, vice president of People's Justice Party, a component of the now ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition in Malaysia, said many of the agencies under the rehiring programme did not submit applications to the immigration department during the transition of the government. The PH coalition came to power, defeating Barisian Nasional, in the general polls in May this year.
“When the police pick them [migrants] up, they say they submitted applications to the agents. But many of them [agents] are corrupt. When they [police] check in the system…if the passports [included with the applications] are not found, you are stuck,” Chua, also an expert on labour issues, told this correspondent at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur on September 18.
Further complicating matters was the presence of fake agents involved in the rehiring programme. One such syndicate was busted by immigration police in Kajang and Nilai areas on August 15.
The syndicate, led by a 35-year-old Malaysian known as “Abang Is”, was found to have cheated over 270 foreign workers from India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Myanmar, and earned RM 22 lakh, reported The Star, a Malaysian newspaper.
The migrants said fraudulent practices by the labour agents have been a massive problem in Malaysia.
“The agents have made our lives hell. They are sucking our blood,” said Sarwar Hossain, a Bangladeshi migrant working at a construction firm in Cyberjaya.
Glorene Dass, executive director of Tenaganita, a rights body in Kuala Lumpur, said the agents defrauded and deceived people, but faced little action.
“For example, workers are not given receipts of rehiring payments and many agents cheat workers...there is no adequate redress mechanism that can investigate and track these agents,” she said.
Tian Chua admitted that many of the migrants were victims of corruption by the private companies and their agents who had connections with the previous government. The present government is trying to correct it, he said.
“We need to have a bilateral discussion with Bangladesh and see how we can find a solution,” said Tian Chua, also a former MP.
Harun, the Bangladeshi right activist, said Bangladesh High Commission should have created massive awareness among the migrants on how not to fall prey to the fraudulent agents, but it has done little in this regard.
This correspondent called High Commissioner Shahidul Islam and Labour Councilor Sayedul Islam several times on their phones, but they did not answer.