Bangladesh has been sitting on a zero-cost labour recruitment offer that Malaysia made more than a year ago.
According to the offer, Malaysian employers will pay visa fees, airfares, medical screening costs, recruitment agency commissions and levies for Bangladeshi job seekers -- a system that falls under the UN convention on migrant workers.
Following a zero-cost labour recruitment pact with Nepal in October, 2018, Malaysia said it would sign a similar deal with Bangladesh.
But since then, Dhaka has not taken any concrete steps to secure the deal with Malaysia, home to some eight lakh Bangladeshis, several officials of the expatriates’ welfare and overseas employment ministry told The Daily Star.
Dhaka and Kuala Lumpur held talks several times since Malaysia suspended labour recruitment from Bangladesh in September 2018. The suspension came following allegations that a syndicate of 10 Bangladeshi agents -- with support from Malaysia -- controlled labour recruitment in 2016-18 when recruitment cost went up to Tk 4 lakh.
But Dhaka did not raise the issue of zero-cost labour recruitment in those talks, according to the ministry officials.
On several occasions, the Malaysian authorities said high recruitment cost was responsible for forced labour and debt bondage of Bangladeshi migrants.
Against this backdrop, Malaysian Human Resources Minister M Kulasegaran on January 15 this year said they would soon finalise a zero-cost labour recruitment deal with Bangladesh.
He also mentioned that Malaysia didn’t want to face US sanctions for not doing enough to combat human trafficking.
“I’m sending the Malaysia-Bangladesh Joint Working Group to Dhaka, Bangladesh, soon to iron out the remaining issues on the zero-cost recruitment agreement,” Kulasegaran told the Malaysian media.
Seeking anonymity, an official of Bangladesh’s expatriates’ welfare ministry said the Malaysian delegation may visit Dhaka in the middle of next month.
Labour migration experts say it is important for Dhaka to take immediate steps to secure a zero-cost labour recruitment deal with Malaysia and frame policies accordingly.
One of the measures would be the elimination of brokers from the recruitment process, as the brokers, with their strong presence at home and abroad, often cheat and abuse workers and make them pay exorbitant migration cost, they said.
Bangladesh, however, is yet to have a law that eliminates brokers from labour recruitment or brings them under legal jurisdiction so that they can be held accountable in case of fraudulence or abuse.
Ahmed Munirus Saleheen, a senior official at the expatriates’ welfare ministry, said it would be great if Malaysia strikes a zero-cost recruitment deal with Bangladesh.
“There can’t be anything better than this for us.”
Saleheen, however, couldn’t say how the policy would be implemented as brokers and private agencies have strong influence on the recruitment system.
“We will sit and finalise the modus operandi when the Bangladesh-Malaysia joint working group meets in Dhaka,” he told this newspaper.
At a press meet earlier this month, Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment Minister Imran Ahmad spoke of a low-cost and transparent recruitment system, admitting that high recruitment cost leads to exploitative practices.
He, however, did not mention the idea of “zero-cost”.
Talking to The Daily Star, Syed Saiful Haque, chairman of migrant rights advocacy body WARBE Development Foundation, said Malaysian labour recruitment from Bangladesh is mired in largescale malpractices and worker abuses.
“High migration cost has been a major problem. As brokers and agencies make hefty profits by sending workers to Malaysia, they focus on recruitment, not on workers’ welfare.”
Many workers were recruited at bogus companies, while many got wages less than that was agreed upon -- factors that forced many migrants to become undocumented and work elsewhere, he noted.
Over the last few years, the Malaysian authorities detained and deported many of the undocumented workers.
Amid such a situation, the US Trafficking in Persons (TIP) put Malaysia on the Tier 2 Watch list for the last two consecutive years. This means Malaysia did not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, he pointed out.
In October last year, the US Customs and Border Protection blocked imported goods from five companies, including Malaysia’s glove-maker WRP Asia Pacific Sdn Bhd, which were accused of practising forced labour.
“This is why Malaysia is talking about a zero-cost recruitment deal,” said Saiful.
He said such a deal with Bangladesh is very important as the record of labour relations between Malaysia and Bangladesh is not a very happy one.
Since 1992 when the Southeast Asian country started hiring Bangladeshi workers, it closed its doors on them on multiple occasions, citing anomalies in recruitment and subsequent labour exploitation.
Malaysia imposed the suspension for nearly a decade from 1997, except in 2000 when some 20,000 were granted visas.
The migration resumed in 2006 and continued till early 2009. Though the migration cost at the time was set at Tk 84,000, studies found that each Bangladeshi migrant had to pay almost Tk 2 lakh.
Also, many were found jobless and exploited -- a reality that forced Kuala Lumpur to suspend workers’ recruitment in 2009.
After four years, Malaysia resumed labour recruitment from Bangladesh under a government-to-government (G2G) deal in 2012, when the migration cost was set at Tk 60,000.
But only 8,000 workers could get jobs under the deal, said industry sources, adding that the recruitment could not gather momentum due to opposition from private agencies and brokers.
Later in 2016, the two countries signed a G2G Plus deal, which was suspended in 2018 because of a syndicate’s control over recruitment and high labour migration costs.