Published on 04:00 PM, June 08, 2024

Labour Recruitment to Malaysia: Syndicate wins, migrants suffer, country loses

Many mortgaged their lands or sold livestock and borrowed from banks, friends, and relatives to arrange the money to travel to Malaysia, only to see their dreams shattered. Photo: Rashed Sumon

"Is the syndicate more powerful than the state?"

This was the closing line of my article about labour recruitment to Malaysia, published in The Daily Star on July 25, 2022. After two years, particularly in the last few days, many now understand the syndicates' complexities and influential role in the recruitment process of Bangladeshi migrants for Malaysia.

Such incidents are common in the context of migration to Malaysia. Over the past 15 years, Malaysia's labour market has been shut down three times due to the same syndicate's involvement, irregularities, corruption, and bribery allegations.

When Malaysia resumed hiring Bangladeshi workers in August 2022, following a four-year hiatus, the governments of both countries agreed that a worker would spend no more than Tk 78,990 during the whole process. However, migrants each had to pay Tk 5.44 lakh or $5,000, according to a survey by the US-based non-profit Verité.

On March 28, four UN experts wrote to the governments of Bangladesh and Malaysia, highlighting the plight of Bangladeshi migrants. They reported that each migrant spent between $4,500 and $6,000 to secure a job in Malaysia. Several migrant workers told the media they spent over Tk 5 lakh to get there.

Despite paying such excessive amounts, at least 16,970 migrant workers failed to reach Malaysia before the May 31 deadline due to mismanagement by the government authorities and local recruiting agents.

Deceived by the recruiting agencies, some failed to obtain airline tickets, while others bought tickets at triple the usual price, but still couldn't travel due to a lack of clearance from the concerned company in Malaysia. Many mortgaged their lands or sold livestock and borrowed from banks, friends, and relatives, only to see their dreams shattered as they missed the opportunity to travel within the stipulated time.

The government could have avoided this by proper planning, as the deadline was set three months ago. But we saw repetition of the cycle of halting the intake of Bangladeshi workers, then re-opening the market, workers paying five to seven times the official cost and struggling to find work and eventually, the market shutting down again. Meanwhile, a group of people profited immensely.

State Minister Shofiqur Rahman Choudhury announced that the ministry had formed a six-member probe committee to investigate this mismanagement. "Those responsible will be brought to book," he assured, adding that the committee would submit its report within seven days and action would follow. However, will this committee uncover the truth? What solutions will they propose, as this is not an isolated incident?

Migration to Malaysia has been fraught with issues since the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) recorded the first 23 Bangladeshi workers migrating in 1978. Over the last 46 years, the recruitment process has seen different names, but it has experienced persistent mismanagement, high migration costs, corruption and repeated closure.

After the market was almost frozen between 1997 and 2005, Malaysia introduced the calling visa system at the end of 2006. Then, in 2007 and 2008, 400,000 Bangladeshi workers went to Malaysia. Although the migration cost was fixed at Tk 84,000, individuals had to pay Tk 2-3 lakh. Despite that, many Bangladeshis did not get jobs and started to suffer in KL. Nearly half a million migrants became undocumented at that time. Due to this, Malaysia stopped hiring workers from Bangladesh in 2009.

After closure from 2009 to 2012, a G2G (government to government) agreement was signed on November 26, 2012, and people went to Malaysia at a very minimal cost of Tk 33,000. But strong opposition from the businessmen and private agencies put a stop to G2G and in 2016, Malaysia declared that it would hire workers through private agencies again. This time, they adopted a syndicate of 10 agencies. There was corruption and massive ambiguity about the process in both countries, and migrants had to pay high costs, at least 10 times more than the government-fixed cost. In September 2018, the market closed again due to corruption and irregularities, re-opening in 2022, only for the same syndicate to emerge.

Most people were delighted about the Malaysian market re-opening, but optimism was replaced by anxiety and scepticism when the syndicate issues re-emerged again in 2022. Dhaka wanted to allow all 1,520 licensed recruiting agencies to send manpower to Malaysia, but in a letter sent to Bangladesh's Expatriate Welfare Minister Imran Ahmed on January 14, 2022, Malaysian former Human Resources Minister M Saravanan said that Malaysia wanted to recruit workers from Bangladesh through 25 agencies.

According to media reports, Aminul Islam Bin Abdul Nor, a Malaysian national of Bangladeshi origin, controls the entire business of sending workers to Malaysia. Ruhul Amin, alias Shawpon, the former Secretary-General of Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira), represents Aminul in Bangladesh. Together, they decide who joins the syndicate.

Aminul also owns the Foreign Workers Central Management System (FWCMS) software MiGRAMS, used for recruiting workers in Malaysia. If the demand papers for any workers are finalised in Malaysia, they are distributed among the approved agencies through the FWCMS software.

Initially, the syndicate had 25 agencies sending workers to Malaysia. This number increased to 100 private agencies, including several owned by parliament members, their relatives, and political leaders, controlled by the syndicate.

From August 2022 to May this year, around 4,76,672 Bangladeshi workers migrated to Malaysia for jobs. This means the syndicate syphoned over $1 billion out of Bangladesh.

There are 14 countries, including Bangladesh, that send workers to Malaysia. However, other than Bangladesh, none of the countries have such a syndicate. So, the government needs to start analysing the amount of remittance and the amount of cost for migration to Malaysia. Nothing will happen if Bangladesh denies sending people through the syndicate.

However, for the sake of the people and for the country, Bangladesh and Malaysia should investigate such irregularities and punish the guilty. But the crucial question remains the same: Is the syndicate more powerful than the state? If not, why do they go unpunished? Are they above the law?

Shariful Hasan is the associate director of Migration Programme and Youth Platform at BRAC, and a columnist.

Views expressed in this article are the author's own. 

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