Transparency Needed In Recruitment Of Bangladeshi Workers
From Andy Hall
There has been much discussion about a new worker recruitment MoU signed between Bangladesh and Malaysia in late 2021. Reports suggest that under this arrangement, only 25 Bangladeshi agencies will recruit workers for Malaysian employers.
While some positive features of the draft of the MoU suggest that employers may cover recruitment-related costs in Malaysia, the costs of recruitment in Bangladesh are stated to be borne by the workers.
The actual MoU signed between the two countries has not been published, nor its terms and conditions clarified. This is despite Malaysia’s commitments in its recent National Action Plan on Forced Labour to promote more transparency on migrant worker recruitment issues.
The lack of transparency means there are fears, denied by some, that the system being developed under the MoU will reestablish a syndicate to manage recruitment between the two countries. Due to alleged corruption, this could increase migration costs for workers that will, in turn, result in their debt bondage and systematic forced labour.
As is seen in different contexts around the world, passing extortionate recruitment costs from employers to workers is the norm. A willingness of workers to pay such high recruitment costs often results from intense competition for jobs in their home countries, with high levels of unemployment, stemming from a lack of job opportunities and civil, economic and political strife.
Recruitment costs are too often covered through high interest loans that lead migrating workers into situations of debt bondage. The pressure to repay the debt that workers incur to migrate overseas limits their choices. For many workers, returning to home countries with debt remaining is not an option, even though they are exploited. Workers hence end up bonded in forced labour or modern slavery.
For years, migration between the Bangladeshi and the Malaysian governments has been under scrutiny. Malaysian authorities have halted recruitment from Bangladesh no less than five times in 20 years. Every time migration between the countries is stopped, accusations emerge about various types of fraud committed by influential persons and agencies. High costs have always fallen on the migrants themselves.
In November 2012, Malaysia signed a bilateral deal with Bangladesh for direct government-to-government recruitment of workers. The aim was to reduce migration costs by reducing the role of private recruitment intermediaries. However, under this model, ultimately undermined by the private recruitment sector, only 10,000 Bangladeshis were recruited into the plantation sector.
In response, in early 2016, the two governments agreed on a new “G2G Plus” system. This led to a two-year cartel in which 10 recruitment agencies conducted recruitment at extortionately high costs. In 2018, when the manipulation in this recruitment procedure became more public, it was stopped. But about 220,000 workers had already migrated to Malaysia at an average cost of about US$5,000.
Malaysian companies became embroiled in the abusive recruitment between Bangladesh and Malaysia, too, with their reputation and profit margins suffering. The US deemed that those recruited from Bangladesh until 2018 were victims of forced labour, owing to debt bondage. This led to Malaysian companies paying back worker recruitment fees to ensure they could continue to export products to the US. Bangladeshi workers were provided a remedy of about RM18,000 to RM20,000 per person.
All involved in migration between Bangladesh and Malaysia – whether governments, recruiters, employers and their buyers or investors – should ensure manpower agencies are chosen to recruit through a transparent process. Selection can be based on proven track record to professionally deliver ethical recruitment and value for money. Workers, employers, buyers, consumers and investors would all benefit from this. Risks of human rights abuses and negative impact on business are reduced.
As someone who has followed this issue in depth, I suggest, however, that this scenario is not playing out now. Instead, manpower agencies chosen to be part of a syndicate across the Bangladesh-Malaysia migration corridor will likely again be chosen based on ability to pay off syndicate leaders who were implicated in previous mismanagement of recruitment that led to exploitation and forced labour.
As an activist, I believe constructive action is needed by the international community of investors, buyers, brands and their suppliers, all doing business in Malaysia, to raise their voices. They should be prepared to boycott recruitment of workers from Bangladesh to Malaysia through a syndicate and a process that is not transparent, free or fair.
Recruitment of workers from Bangladesh to Malaysia under a syndicate cannot adhere to basic corporate “governance” standards requiring free and fair competition. Governance is a central part of ESG principles that international actors are required to comply with. The repercussions of this will be felt, on companies’ bottom lines and on the country’s reputation, sooner or later.
Or course, a “corporate governance” standpoint is not going to help Bangladeshi workers recruited into smaller companies, where employers need not adhere to ESG principles. Already, SMEs have stated that they will not bear high costs of migration for workers they desperately need under a non-binding MoU.
The international community should, therefore, stand firm against unethical recruitment, demanding a revision of how recruitment schemes work to ensure they are open, fair and free of syndication.
Most importantly, recruitment costs should be wholly or, for the most part, covered by employers (and their buyers, brands and investors) and not placed as a burden on the workers themselves.
The reopening of recruitment from Bangladesh and other countries to Malaysia’s labour-starved economy at this time is a real opportunity for the positive reform envisaged in Malaysia’s recently developed National Action Plan on Forced Labour, and also the National Action Plan on Human Rights.
The international community and, more importantly, investors, governments and buyers, should hold the Malaysian government and its private sector to these commitments. - FMT
Andy Hall is an independent migrant worker rights specialist.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.
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