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Supporting the hands that feed our forex reserves - The Daily Star

Bangladesh and Malaysia have recently signed an MoU paving the way for Bangladeshi migrant workers to reap the benefits of employment opportunities in Malaysia. The MoU, which will be in effect till December 2026, ends a freeze of more than three years of manpower export to Malaysia, after allegations surfaced in 2018 of the exploitation of migrant workers.

While this is a welcome move for both Bangladesh and Malaysia, there are a few issues that need to be addressed immediately for the well-being of the workers travelling to distant lands to earn bread and butter for their families.

First of all, the problem of scamming Malaysia-bound migrant workers can be attributed to the model of the G2G-Plus deal that had previously been signed by the two countries, which allowed only 10 agencies from Bangladesh to recruit workers from the country. The system allowed for the agencies to charge exorbitant amounts from the workers, leaving them destitute—and at times in a state of debt bondage.

Around Tk 400,000 was charged and taken from each worker travelling to Malaysia, which is way above the government-fixed migration cost. Information surfacing in 2018 revealed that a recruitment syndicate extorted more than 100,000 Malaysia-bound migrant workers alone, with a certain businessman earning more than two billion Malaysian ringgit (RM). Each worker had to pay 20,000 RM to local agents, who then paid other middlemen plaguing the manpower supply chain.

While how such a syndicate smoothly operated within the system is a cause for concern, what the government should be focusing on now is the elimination of such possibilities in the future.

Under the new MOU, Malaysian recruitment agencies will be included in the migration process. In addition, employers in Malaysia will bear the cost of migration incurred in that country. These are good signs. However, workers will still have to pay a certain amount to cover the migration cost in Bangladesh. Given the past history of massive corruption and extortion of migrant workers, both the countries will need to ensure a transparent system that will enable all parties to keep real-time track of the processes and transactions involved, so that the same mistakes are not repeated this time around.

The issue of extortion of aspiring migrant workers is not limited to Malaysia-bound candidates only. Recruitment syndicates and middlemen exploiting the desperation of the underprivileged is not a new phenomenon in our labour migration landscape. On many previous occasions, this concern had been raised. The prime minister herself instructed the authorities concerned in 2019 to be vigilant so that middlemen would not be able to abuse our migrant workers. "We have to give special attention so that no one is cheated by middlemen. We have the responsibility to look after their [the migrant workers'] security and welfare because they're our citizens," she was quoted by this daily as saying.

Despite this, even to this day, there are instances where migrant workers face severe financial hardship when planning to travel abroad for a better future. As suggested by the Cost of Migration Survey, 2020 by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), on an average a migrant worker needs around 18 months to earn enough to recover the money they had to spend to secure a job abroad.

However, extortion and debt bondage are only some of the problems faced by our migrant workers. There are certain syndicates that are engaged in human trafficking. These syndicates traffic unsuspecting victims to various destinations where they are forced to endure unspeakable horrors. Unfortunately, despite repeated flags and concerns raised by human rights bodies, the authorities cannot seem to curb this heinous crime.

For instance, in a report titled "Syndicate illegally sending migrant workers to Libya" published in 2013, this newspaper elaborated—citing a report by the Bangladesh embassy in Tripoli—the crime of an organised syndicate illegally sending migrant workers to Libya, despite there being very limited scope for work there at that time. And in March last year, 26 Bangladeshi workers were killed in Libya in a revenge attack by the family of a Libyan human trafficker. Recently, the nefarious activities of the TikTok ring and the Dance Club gang came to the fore. Both these gangs have been actively selling girls and women into sex slavery. Kamrul Islam alias DJ Kamrul of the Dance Club ring had been arrested earlier in 2019, but was later released, after which he returned to his criminal activities. One might wonder why a trafficker was released after arrest. The answer to this question would perhaps require a separate column altogether.

In the light of the prevailing scenario, a three-pronged approach might be helpful in alleviating the plight of migrant workers. First of all, the government needs to take a hard look at the issues of recruitment syndicates and middlemen extorting money from migrant workers, and the trafficking rings luring innocent, hard-working people in with false promises of lucrative jobs. The relevant government bodies need to review the existing policy frameworks so that any loopholes there can be closed.

In addition, law enforcement agencies need to be on alert to monitor trafficking rings and hotspots—some of which are already pretty well-known, thanks to constant media reports—and bust these gangs. They also need to keep an eye on the activities of the recruiting agencies and their agents, and ensure that they are not overcharging the migrant workers. If these agencies or their agents cross the line and extort money from migrant workers, they should be brought to book and held accountable for their deeds. More importantly, law enforcers need to take a closer look at the supply chain of manpower export, and pluck out the middlemen from the system.

The second factor is the education and skills development of aspiring migrant workers. The government needs to focus on providing basic education to the migrant workers about their rights and safe migration, so that they can identify the pitfalls of blindly trusting the so-called fixers and agents, and make informed and wise decisions about going abroad.

Secondly, the government needs to initiate mass-scale skills development programmes for underprivileged communities so that these people can secure decent jobs both at home and abroad. Technical skills development alongside soft skills development can greatly improve employability of the workforce, and enable them to negotiate better in the job market.

Workers from the Philippines and Sri Lanka, for instance, get higher wages compared to workers from Bangladesh, because they are better skilled. If we can turn our unskilled or low-skilled workers into a skilled workforce, then it will increase their chances of securing better-paying jobs, which in the long run would also help in the economic growth of our country in the form of higher remittance.

The third factor of the three-pronged approach is the government's proactive involvement in negotiating better wages for our workers abroad. The relevant agencies and ministries need to talk to the countries recruiting Bangladeshi workers, and push for decent and fairer pay for our workers.

If the government can bring all these factors under one umbrella, and take a comprehensive approach towards creating a better migration ecosystem for our migrant workers, then all these problems can be eliminated once and for all. However, for this, the government needs to demonstrate strong political will—especially as some of the recruitment agencies are well-connected.

Our migrant workers are one of the major contributors to our unstoppable economic growth. We must give them the education, facilities and support that they need to have a better and safer life in distant lands. This is the least we could do for them.

Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @tasneem_tayeb