Making migrant worker recruitment ethical
Bangladesh chairs the Thematic Area Working Group (TAWG) of the Colombo Process on ethical recruitment. The 9th meeting of TAWG took place in Bangladesh from August 24 to 25, 2022. Regularisation of sub-agents in the origin countries was an important area of discussion in this meeting. As part of its commitment to ethical recruitment, the Bangladesh government has drafted a revised version of the Overseas Employment and Migrants Act 2013 and created space for regularisation of sub-agents. The Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU), with the guidance of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment, and in collaboration with the Parliamentary Caucus on Migration and Development and Bangladesh Civil Society for Migrants, has prepared three alternative models for the institutionalisation of functions of sub-agents. One of these models has been submitted before the TAWG.
Role of sub-agents
Research by RMMRU, conducted in 2017, identified 17 types of services provided by sub-agents to the migrants. Recruiting agencies take the services of sub-agents, but they procure that informally. This is one of the sources that help unscrupulous recruiting agencies and sub-agents to commit fraud. As early as in 2019, RMMRU projected that Tk 2,706.2 crore is lost annually due to such cheating.
Directives of the PM
With strong advocacy from civil society, on September 4, 2019, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina directed the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment (MEWOE) to provide ID cards to the sub-agents who are involved in international labour migration. On the basis of recommendations of a committee formed by the government, the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET) instructed each recruiting agency (RA) to provide names of 20 sub-agents. It also states that the concerned RA is allowed to recruit workers through these 20 sub-agents. But experience over the last two years shows that the system does not work in practice. This is because RAs recruit workers from all over the country. Therefore, they are required to employ sub-agents from different parts of the country as recruitment is conducted in remote areas and local sub-agents are the only channel through which workers can be approached. Only 20 sub-agents cannot serve this purpose.
In Bangladesh, BMET is the line agency that regulates overseas employment. The RMMRU model suggests that registration of sub-agents can be provided by BMET on the basis of nomination from recruiting agencies. However, instead of restricting the number of sub-agents per recruiting agency, BMET may allow as many sub-agents as the recruiting agency requires.
A cell needs to be established in the BMET office for sub-agent registration. It should set the criteria for enlistment of sub-agents and prepare guidelines for the sub-agents to lawfully conduct recruitment. Recruiting agencies, sub-agents, and BMET staff need to be trained on the procedure of sub-agent registration. After a systematic verification, BMET may register a sub-agent.
As per the model, the sub-agent will be provided with a registration card with a unique ID number. BMET clearance forms would then have the provision to mention the name and registration number of the sub-agent, along with the licence number of the recruiting agency. If the recruiting agency does not avail the service of a sub-agent, the liability should remain with the recruiting agency alone. If it takes the help of a sub-agent, then the liability will be a joint one. The list of sub-agents should be annually updated and it should be posted online.
If any migrant or potential migrant has a complaint against any sub-agent and recruiting agency, then they would lodge it to the BMET for arbitration. The current system of conducting investigations by BMET has to be strengthened. Along with DEMO officials, NGO representatives with legal knowledge can be made part of the investigation team.
The persons engaged by BMET in arbitration should possess a legal degree. The MEWOE should have a system of evaluation of the arbitration system. Each migrant worker should fill up a confidential evaluation form. Provisions may be made to have representatives of the aggrieved migrants assigned to the arbitration process under BMET.
Cancellation of registration if found guilty
Under sections 31, 32, 33, 34, 35 and 36 of the Overseas Employment and Migrants Act 2013, the punishments that have been prescribed, including compensation for recruiting agents, will also be equally applicable for sub-agents. Recruiting agencies and sub-agents should also have the right to appeal to higher authorities against any decision.
The separate department created at BMET under the director of immigration/arbitration for registering the sub-agents would require at least three staff members. One administrative officer will manage the office and its account, prepare quarterly reports, disburse salary, etc. The programme officer will receive all the applications both in person and online, and will also act as the investigating officer to conduct the background check on applicants based on criteria set by BMET.
IT personnel will maintain the online list of sub-agents who have been registered. The investigating officer will also conduct a yearly survey with the recruiting agencies to inquire if they want to continue with the sub-agents from last year or not. The same survey should also inquire if they would like to enlist more names of sub-agents for registration for the following year. On the basis of the survey findings, the higher authority will accept the new names and provide registration with ID numbers. An IT officer will annually update the list.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee, the Parliamentary Caucus on Migration and Development, BCSM member organisations, and RMMRU strongly demand that during the programme of Thematic Area Working Group of Colombo Process, the Government of Bangladesh commits to establish the above model with necessary addition and alteration to regularise sub-agents as part of its long drawn commitment to ethical recruitment.
Dr Tasneem Siddiqui is chairperson of the Department of Political Science at Dhaka University and founding chair of Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU).