Surviving re-entry into the Malaysian labor market is key

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Will the factors that caused the market to close in 2018 reappear?

A fair recruitment process will not only reduce migration costs, but also reduce the number of irregular migrants, a phenomenon inherently associated with high migration costs. Illustration: Biplob Chakroborty

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A fair recruitment process will not only reduce migration costs, but also reduce the number of irregular migrants, a phenomenon inherently associated with high migration costs. Illustration: Biplob Chakroborty

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 into the Malaysian labor market which was in force since 2018. The agreement has come as a welcome relief as it has created an opportunity for the employment of hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi workers for the next five years. However, with few signs of progress in the labor movement, the initial optimistic cadence was replaced by anxiety and skepticism. It appears that despite the government’s stated commitment to fair recruitment practices, the forces that undermined previous efforts to access this important labor market are once again flexing their muscles to promote their vested interests. This, in turn, led to uncertainty, threatening the whole arrangement.

As stakeholders eagerly awaited the reopening of the Malaysian labor market, apprehensions about a reviving cartel of recruitment agencies began to gain traction. Various recruitment agency groups – all members of the Bangladesh Association of International Recruitment Agencies (BAIRA) – have expressed concern over the nascent cartel allegedly led by a Malaysian entrepreneur of Bangladeshi descent, actively aided by a few Recruitment from Bangladesh. In response, senior Bangladeshi ministry officials have repeatedly stated that the government is committed to providing equal opportunities to all registered agencies to facilitate labor migration to Malaysia. Needless to say, the debacle of the G2G-plus arrangement that led to a halt in the movement of workers to Malaysia, after the fall of Najib Razak’s government, may have been fresh in their minds.

The G2G-plus system was introduced at the request of 10 recruitment agencies in Bangladesh. The restricted arrangement that was worked out at the time contributed to a spike in migration costs. Despite the maximum threshold stipulated by the government of Tk 37,500, workers had to pay an amount between Tk 300,000 and 400,000. In the process, Tk 5,500 crore was allegedly pocketed by the syndicate (Daily Observer, 02.13.22). After the fall of the Najib regime in Kuala Lumpur, the new government suspended further labor migration from Bangladesh due to gross irregularities in the recruitment process. He also accused senior government officials of engaging in corrupt practices in this regard. Bangladeshi recruitment agencies have alleged that the same invested quarterback, unable to make progress on the Bangladesh side, has now managed to establish his grip on the Malaysian side and is putting pressure on Bangladesh.

The concern of general recruitment firms is not unfounded. In recent months, the Kuala Lumpur media have published a number of reports on the group’s activities to unfairly control labor migration from Bangladesh (Malaysiakini, 10.01.22). Reports on some online news portals and social media highlighted the group’s access to the corridors of power in Putrajaya. The case drew further attention when the Malaysian Minister of Human Resources, in a January 14 letter, urged the Bangladeshi Minister for Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment to initiate the process of dispatching workers to Malaysia by involving “25 main Bangladesh Recruitment Agencies (BRAs) with 10 BRAs associated respectively under each main BRA…” In his January 18 response, the Bangladeshi Minister informed his Malaysian counterpart that in accordance with ILO charters and Bangladesh’s own Competition Act, 2012 endorsing “transparent, fair and safe migration”, its government was obligated “to keep opportunities open to all AROs holding a valid license”.

The latest initiative to “syndicate” the recruitment of workers for the Malaysian market has caused deep concern among stakeholders, especially recruitment agencies. The BRAs held a series of meetings, rallies, human chains and press conferences, and submitted memoranda including one to the Prime Minister. In a January 24 meeting under the General Recruitment Agencies banner, jointly organized by at least seven groups of recruitment agencies, they qualified the Malaysian Minister’s call for the limitation of opportunities for BRAs not only unfair and one-sided, but also “interference in Bangladesh’s own affairs”. The AROs raised the question: if there are no restrictions placed on Malaysian companies to participate in the recruitment process, why is the country insisting on Bangladeshi agencies?

They noted that making a distinction between “main BRA” and “associate BRA” is “unethical and demeaning”, and that all BRAs have equal qualifications and have acquired their license by meeting the same criteria set by the government, including the payment of a deposit. The BRAs also reminded the authorities of the 2018 High Court order prohibiting any trade union from operating in the recruitment of workers (Prothom Alo24.01.22).

News reports also indicate that the BRAs are concerned that instead of remaining firmly committed to avoiding any trend towards syndication, the ministry responsible for overseas employment is considering allowing Malaysia to choose the said 25 agencies (Prothom Alo, 01.24.22). Recruitment agency Oikkyo Parishad has expressed opposition to Malaysia having a say in who should be allowed to recruit workers from Bangladesh. She argued that such concessions would only facilitate the syndication process.

The rejection of the syndication effort by the AROs also struck a chord with the host nation’s recruiting industry. The Secretary of the National Association of Private Employment Agencies Malaysia said: “We don’t want any syndication or monopoly of special privileges in recruiting foreign workers”, adding that “we want [a] similar system to hire workers from the fourteen countries, including Bangladesh” (The commercial standard10.01.22).

Recruitment agencies’ stance against the syndication movement has garnered support not only from their Malaysian counterparts but also from others outside the industry. For example, the Standing Committee on Manpower and Skills Development of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry has expressed concern in this regard, asking the question that if all recruitment agencies in countries like Nepal, India and Pakistan could send workers to Malaysia, why should the system be any different for Bangladeshi agencies? In a joint press release, the Bangladeshi and Malaysian sections of Transparency International also expressed concern over the “diabolical designs of powerful trade unions”. The organizations demanded transparency and accountability at every stage of the migration process, as well as concrete actions to reduce corruption and ensure access to public information.

Developments centered around the reopening of the Malaysian market for Bangladeshi workers have exposed the extent of abusive practices associated with the short-term temporary labor recruitment process. These also revealed the long arm of unscrupulous and powerful recruitment agencies, as well as the nature of cross-border collaboration of scammers. The episode exposed the brazenness of some agencies that not only dared to challenge state politics and authority, but also colluded extraterritorially to overthrow them. Now is the time for the government to act decisively and take punitive action against these elements. The actions of these agencies should be seen as nothing less than economic sabotage against the state.

The experience prompted the BRAs to act collectively against their wandering peers. It also created an opportunity for BAIRA to harness the support of its members and establish their accountability. The establishment of a system of self-regulation will greatly contribute to improving the image of the association in the eyes of the public.

It is regrettable, however, that the authorities in Putrajaya insist on having a system which they themselves had identified in the past as the main reason for the recruitment of labor in Bangladesh. It is hoped that they will reconsider their current position and soon establish a level playing field for all involved in the recruitment process in both countries. Needless to say, in addition to bringing benefits to migrant workers in the form of reduced migration costs, it will also lead to a reduction in the number of irregular migrants in the country of destination – a phenomenon intrinsically associated with the high cost of migration.

C.R. Abrar is an academic. He directs the Research Unit on Movements of Refugees and Migrants (RMMRU).

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