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Labor Recruitment to Malaysia: Time to break the never-ending cycle

Malaysia hiring stopped workers from Bangladesh in September 2018, alleging massive irregularities in the recruitment process via a syndicate of 10 recruiting agencies. After several meetings in the last three years, the two countries signed an MoU on December 19, 2021 to reopen the labor market. Surprisingly, it seems the same syndicate is controlling almost everything – again!

Such incidents are not new when it comes to migration to Malaysia. According to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET), 23 Bangladeshis went to Malaysia for the first time in 1978, but workers started going regularly from 1992. Over the last 44 years, there used to be a different name for the recruitment process, but allegations of mismanagement, high migration costs, and corruption have been persistent. The Malaysian labor market was closed to Bangladeshi workers again and again.

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The market was almost shut down from 1997 to 2005, and 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, Tk 2 to 3 lakh was taken from each applicant. The number of people who went to Malaysia was far beyond what was needed. As a result, many Bangladeshis did not get jobs and faced a crisis in a foreign land. Due to this, Malaysia stopped hiring workers from Bangladesh in 2009. Nearly half a million migrants became undocumented at that time.

After the labor market was closed for almost four years, the two countries became interested in sending workers via a government-to-government (G2G) process, bypassing private agencies, to solve the crisis. Despite strong opposition from the agencies, Bangladesh and Malaysia signed a G2G agreement on November 26, 2012. But Malaysian employers did not send many demands. On the other hand, several hundred thousand of Rohingyas and Bangladeshis went to Malaysia by sea, and mass graves were discovered on the Thai-Malaysian border, which was criticized worldwide.

Ultimately the G2G failed, and Malaysia declared to hire workers through private agencies again. But this time, they adopted a syndicate of 10 agencies. There was corruption and massive ambiguity about the process in both the countries, and the monopolistic control of 10 recruiting agencies eventually led to the 2018 suspension by the Mahathir government.

After more than three years of closure, an MoU was signed to send our migrant workers to the Southeast Asian nation at the end of 2021. Most people were delighted about the Malaysian market reopening as it is an employment opportunity. However, the optimism was replaced by anxiety and skepticism when the syndicate issues re-emerged. In the letter sent to Bangladesh’s Expatriate Welfare Minister Imran Ahmed on January 14 this year, Malaysian minister M Saravanan said that Malaysia wanted to recruit workers from Bangladesh through 25 agencies.

Referring to the ILO Charter and the Bangladesh Competition Act, 2012, Minister Imran Ahmed, in a letter dated January 16, 2022, responded to Saravanan saying that Bangladesh wanted an equal opportunity to ensure transparent, regular and safe migration of its citizens. But surprisingly, the Malaysian human resources minister stuck to his unfair demand from him. When he visited Dhaka in early June this year, he openly spoke in favor of the syndicate of 25 agencies.

At least three of the 25 agencies are owned by three sitting MPs, and one is related to an influential minister. The rest also have powerful connections. There is an allegation that a Malaysian Dato of Bangladeshi origin, who has access to the corridors of power in Putrajaya, is the most influential person in this syndication process – whether now or in the past.

The Bangladesh Civil Society for Migrants (BCSM) has expressed concerns about the process and urged not to repeat the same mistakes that led to the closure of the Malaysian labor market before.

Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) and Transparency International Malaysia (TIM) have jointly called for transparency in the recruitment process and urged the two governments to take all preventive measures against corruption in the recruitment process, including syndicated control, so that Bangladeshi workers’ interests and that of their employers in Malaysia can be protected. Alas, no one listens!

It is unfair that Malaysia is hiring workers from 13 other source countries, and none of them have unions like Bangladesh. Migration experts and most employers in Malaysia are also concerned about this and have asked the human resources minister to explain how the 25 agencies were selected. But his ministry did not clarify on what basis the agencies were selected from the list of 1,520 agencies sent by Bangladesh.

It’s true that there is a huge demand for workers, but Malaysia is now under international pressure for its faulty recruitment system, and many of its top companies are facing challenges in hiring workers. Bangladesh could make use of this opportunity as no other country can provide a large number of workers. In addition, three prime ministers have been replaced in Malaysia in the last two years due to political unrest. Syndication will definitely be an issue in the future.

Considering all this, Bangladesh can say no to unions, but agree to send workers through a transparent process. The Ministry of Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment has fixed Tk 78,990 as the migration cost to Malaysia from Bangladesh. But the ministry has asked not to pay anyone as the recruitment process has not been announced. Ignoring that, agencies have already started taking money and medical tests have been started, even though the ministry has not yet approved any medical centers.

It indicates that if the same syndicated system becomes active again, Bangladeshi workers will have to pay more, and it may lead to another market closure, causing substantial financial losses to the migrants. So, we should immediately develop a process where anyone who wants to go abroad would have to register in a digital platform, which would create a functional database. According to the Overseas Employment and Migrant Act, this should have been initiated in 2013.

We need to develop a system to make the whole recruitment process transparent, not just for Malaysia, but for all countries of employment. After the registration of potential migrant workers in the database, there should be a system using which employers from any country can place their demands. Then the agencies can hire workers according to their skills from the database.

On the other hand, those who are going abroad from Bangladesh are not very conscious, and they are desperate to go at any cost. This is risky behaviour. Before going abroad, everyone should calculate how much money they can earn and what their migration cost is. We must remember that the cost of migration from Bangladesh is the highest globally, and the workers’ earnings are the lowest. According to a national survey by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, a Bangladeshi worker has to spend 17 months’ worth of salary to go abroad, which is one kind of modern-day slavery.

Considering the situation, both Bangladesh and Malaysia should remain resolute in promoting safe, fair, transparent and ethical recruitment, upholding the national laws and relevant international standards.

However, we should also be vocal about the employers’ pay models for ethical recruitment. If there is a need for an employee, it is also the responsibility of the employers to bear the recruitment costs. Many Malaysian employers showed interest in such recruitment, but due to unions, it is not happening. If all the stakeholders want a solution, it is possible to achieve it; South Korea’s EPS (Employment Permit System) is such an example.

But before everything, we have to answer the question: Is the syndicate more powerful than the state?

shariful hasan is a freelance journalist.

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