Surviving re-entry to Malaysian labour market is key
It has been two months since a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Bangladesh and Malaysia on the employment of Bangladeshi workers was signed, marking the end of a suspension on their entry to the Malaysian labour market which had been in force since 2018. The agreement came as a welcome relief as it created an opportunity for the employment of hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi workers for the next five years. However, with little sign of progress in the movement of labour, the initial upbeat cadence has been replaced by anxiety and scepticism. It appears that despite the government's declared commitment to fair recruitment practices, the forces that were responsible for undermining earlier efforts in gaining access to this important labour market are again flexing their muscles to further their vested interest. This, in turn, has led to uncertainty, threatening the entire arrangement.
At a time when stakeholders were looking forward to the re-opening of the Malaysian labour market, apprehension about the revival of a cartel of recruiting agencies began to gain ground. Various groups of recruiting agencies—all members of Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (BAIRA)—expressed their concern about the incipient cartel that is reportedly being masterminded by a Malaysian entrepreneur of Bangladeshi origin, actively aided by a few recruiting agencies of Bangladesh. In response, senior functionaries of the concerned ministry of Bangladesh declared on a number of occasions that the government is committed to providing equal opportunity for all registered agencies to facilitate the migration of workers to Malaysia. Needless to say, the debacle of the G2G-plus arrangement which led to the cessation of workers' movement to Malaysia, after the fall of the Najib Razak government, was perhaps fresh in their mind.
The G2G-plus system was introduced at the behest of 10 recruiting agencies of Bangladesh. The restricted arrangement that was worked out at the time contributed to a spike in migration cost. Despite the government-stipulated maximum threshold of Tk 37,500, workers had to pay an amount between Tk 300,000 and Tk 400,000. In the process, Tk 5,500 crore was allegedly pocketed by the syndicate (Daily Observer, 13.02.22). After the fall of the Najib regime in Kuala Lumpur, the new government imposed a suspension on further labour migration from Bangladesh on grounds of gross irregularities in the recruitment process. It also charged senior government officials for engaging in corrupt practices in this regard. Bangladeshi recruiting agencies have alleged that the same vested quarter, being unable to make any headway at the Bangladesh end, has now managed to establish their hold at the Malaysian end and is exerting pressure on Bangladesh.
The anxiety of the general recruitment agencies is not unfounded. Over the last several months, media outlets in Kuala Lumpur carried a number of reports about the group's activities to unfairly control labour migration from Bangladesh (Malaysiakini, 10.01.22). Reports in some online news portals and social media have underscored the group's access to the corridors of power in Putrajaya. The matter attracted further attention when the Malaysian human resources minister, in a letter on January 14, urged Bangladesh's minister for expatriates' welfare and overseas employment to initiate the process of sending workers to Malaysia by involving "25 main Bangladesh Recruiting Agencies (BRAs) with 10 associate BRAs respectively under each main BRA..." In his reply on January 18, the Bangladeshi minister informed his Malaysian counterpart that as per ILO charters and Bangladesh's own Competition Act, 2012 endorsing "transparent, fair and safe migration", his government was obliged "to keep the opportunities open to all valid, licensed BRAs."
The latest move for "syndication" of workers' recruitment for the Malaysian market has generated deep concern among the stakeholders, particularly the recruiting agencies. The BRAs have organised a series of meetings, rallies, human chains, and press conferences, and submitted memorandums including one to the prime minister. At a meeting held on January 24 under the banner of General Recruiting Agencies, jointly organised by at least seven groups of recruiting agencies, they termed the Malaysian minister's call for restricted opportunity for BRAs as not only unfair and biased, but also an "interference in Bangladesh's own affairs". The BRAs raised the question that if no restriction is imposed on the Malaysian companies to participate in the recruitment process, why is the country insisting this for Bangladeshi agencies?
They noted that making a distinction between "main BRA" and "associate BRA" is "immoral and degrading", and that all BRAs have equal qualifications and acquired their license by meeting the same criteria set by the government, including payment of deposit. The BRAs also reminded the authorities of the 2018 High Court order for not allowing any syndicate to operate in the recruitment of workers (Prothom Alo, 24.01.22).
News reports also say the BRAs are concerned that instead of remaining firmly committed to staving off any move towards syndication, the ministry responsible for overseas employment is considering allowing Malaysia to choose the said 25 agencies (Prothom Alo, 24.01.22). The Recruitment Agency Oikkyo Parishad has expressed its opposition to allowing Malaysia any say about who should be granted the authority to recruit workers from Bangladesh. It argued that such concessions would only facilitate the syndication process.
The rejection of the syndication effort by the BRAs has struck a sympathetic chord in the host country's recruitment sector as well. The secretary of the National Association of Private Employment Agencies of Malaysia has stated, "We do not want any syndication or monopoly of special privileges in the recruitment of foreign workers," adding that "we want [a] similar system to hire workers from all fourteen countries including Bangladesh" (The Business Standard, 10.01.22).
The recruitment agencies' stand against the syndication move has garnered the support of not only their Malaysian counterparts but also of others outside the sector. For example, the Standing Committee on Manpower and Skill Development of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry expressed its concern in this regard, posing the question that if all the recruiting agencies of countries such as Nepal, India and Pakistan can send workers to Malaysia, why should the system be any different for Bangladeshi agencies? In a joint press statement, the Bangladeshi and Malaysian chapters of Transparency International also expressed their concern about the "evil designs of the powerful syndicates". The organisations demanded transparency and accountability at every stage of the migration process, and concrete action to curtail corruption and ensure access to public information.
The developments centring the re-opening of the Malaysian market for Bangladeshi workers have brought into the open the depth of malpractices that are associated with the short-term temporary labour recruitment process. These also revealed the long arm of the unscrupulous and powerful recruiting agencies, as well as the nature of cross-national collaboration of the crooked. The episode has exposed the impudence of some agencies that not only dared to challenge the policy and authority of the state, but also to collude extraterritorially to subvert those. The time has come for the government to act decisively and take punitive action against these elements. The actions of such agencies should be deemed as nothing less than an economic sabotage against the state.
The experience has prompted the BRAs to act collectively against their errant peers. This has also created an opportunity for the BAIRA to harness the support of—and establish accountability of—its members. Putting in place a system of self-regulation will go a long way in enhancing the image of the association in the public eye.
It is, however, unfortunate that the Putrajaya authorities are insisting on having a system that they themselves had identified in the past as the prime reason plaguing labour recruitment from Bangladesh. One hopes that they will review their current stance and soon set up a level playing field for all actors engaged in the recruitment process in both countries. Needless to say, along with bringing benefits to the migrant workers in the form of reduced migration costs, this will also lead to a reduction in the number of migrants with irregular status in the destination country—a phenomenon intrinsically associated with the high migration cost.
C R Abrar is an academic. He heads the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU).