Will our workers get better deal this time?
Would Bangladesh ever be able to protect the rights of its citizens who work on foreign soil? The ongoing negotiation on labour recruitment with the Malaysian government makes it doubtful.
The scepticism becomes stronger because labour relation between the two nations has been tarnished by corruption linked to powerful lobbies that led to egregious labour abuses. The on again off again worker recruitment with Malaysia does not exactly give confidence that the workers will get a better deal this time.
Manpower is one of the most important exports of Bangladesh and it earned around $15 billion last year from foreign remittance, about 33% of its total foreign currency earnings. These figures are enough to underscore the importance of this sector and the need to provide the material, moral, and humane support the workers deserve.
The government's negotiating skills in labour deals with foreign countries fall far short of a position of strength and dignity. Considering that Bangladeshi workers frequently face mistreatment when corruption remains rife in recruitment stage, the government must protect its citizens wherever they are. It needs to be very careful before signing any labour deal with a country. Such a deal is meant for human beings, not commodities.
Malaysia's latest interference to a fresh labour deal casts shadow over a transparent recruitment system that is badly needed for Bangladesh.
The most recent twist came on November 6 when Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi requested Bangladesh to incorporate its “selected Malaysian company's proposal” in the draft memorandum of understanding (MoU) that had been put on the agenda of the cabinet meeting on November 9.
This selected company profile is questionable at best. Yet, Bangladesh's Expatriates' Welfare Minister Nurul Islam withdrew the draft MoU, and is now waiting for the Malaysian company's proposal before finalizing the deal.
Hamidi's letter did not specify any company, but last month he told the Malaysian parliament the home ministry chose Synerflux for online recruitment of 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers in the next three years.
Earlier on September 21, Malaysia, in a letter to Bangladesh, informed of appointing Synerflux. It said the company would be “sole and exclusive entity” to develop, maintain and manage the online recruitment system. It will also have offices in Bangladesh and Malaysia, and will supervise bio-medical process for workers' registration, verification of eligibility, medical screening, and delivery of visas.
This has given rise to a new controversy in addition to a series of previous ones.
At least two Malaysian companies – Bestinet and Real Time Networking – had earlier lobbied to get the job, but back-tracked following widespread criticism from media and civil society in Malaysia, home to some six lakh Bangladeshis.
Real Time Networking is owned by DPM Ahmad Zahid Hamidi's brother Abdul Hakim Hamidi, while Bestinet is linked to Synerflux via another firm, JR Joint Resources.
According to a November 12 report of Malaysiakini, a Malaysian online news portal, Bestinet's directors include former Malaysian home minister Azmi Khalid and former Labour Department director Tengku Omar Tengku Bot.
Tengku Omar is also a director at JR Joint Resources, the company in which Synerflux director Nor Aliza Pungot works.
Synerflux's Bangladeshi Workers Management System has similarities to Bestinet's Foreign Workers Centralised Management System, whose services were suspended by Malaysia in January this year following complaints from Indonesia and Nepal that it was charging higher fees from their migrant workers.
Besides, there are allegations that Bestinet, which was earlier appointed by Malaysian home ministry to manage repatriation of undocumented migrants to Bangladesh, extorted the workers. While the official fee was only Malaysian Ringgit (MR) 400, they were charged over MR 1000 each.
A top Baira leader expressed his reservations about the Malaysian proposal calling it “something fishy” in reaction to Zahid Hamid's November 6 letter.
The issue is of immense importance because Bangladesh's labour relations with Malaysia has always been stained with corruption, recruiting surplus workers, joblessness, low wage, non-payment, bad living conditions etc.
In 2007-08, thousands of Bangladeshi workers in Malaysia became jobless and had to stay out on the streets. Such abuses got global media headlines and led to a ban on recruitments in early 2009. Malaysia started recruiting again through state-level arrangement, the so called G2G, in 2013 limited to the plantation sector. However, less than 10,000 workers went there.
Industry insiders said powerful lobbies were behind G2G “failure” which prompted Malaysia to start recruitment through private sector. Trade unions and migrant rights bodies questioned why Malaysia did not open the sectors like construction, manufacturing and services under G2G that could work.
They are also critical of the government's appointing any private company to manage the complete recruitment system, saying it will create monopoly. They also question if Malaysia really needs foreign workers now when its economy has slowed down.
It appears that Bangladesh does not have much say over Malaysia's setting the conditions of worker recruitment or working conditions in Malaysia.
While Bangladesh needs to send her citizens abroad for jobs, it should also be remembered that it cannot allow anyone to treat its citizens in any way they wanted. It is a question of dignity for Bangladesh.
Globally, Bangladesh is now a brand name for ready-made garments, cricket, UN Peacekeeping Mission, micro-credit, women empowerment, progress in health and many others. Recently, it has become a lower middle income country. It is time Bangladesh start behaving in an assertive manner.