The Malaysian market: good news for overseas job seekers
As I See It column
The Independent, June 1st, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
The Minister for Expat Affairs has angered the private sector manpower recruiting agencies’ coordinating body Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (BAIRA) over the new recruitment policy for sending Bangladeshi manpower to Malaysia. After a visit to KL recently, the Minister said in a meeting with the media that Malaysia would recruit more manpower from Bangladesh and the recruitment would be managed by the Ministry of Expatriates’ Affairs at Bangladesh’s end.
What was music to the ear of those aspiring to go to Malaysia was what the Minister said about the costs. The Minister said that each prospective expatriate going to Malaysia would pay Taka 50,000. If the Malaysian employer paid the airfare, the costs would come down to taka 35,000! This is at least half to 4 times less than what the average worker paid in going to Malaysia and Middle East destinations in the past. In many cases, these expatriates have been forced to borrow the money from loan sharks to pay the high costs to the manpower agents/brokers or sell their lands/meager belongings at low prices to go abroad. On arriving at their places of employment, many found that they were receiving substantially less pay than promised.
One of the many untold episodes in the lives of our expatriates that no one mentions is the premature deaths of expatriates due to tensions on issues of high costs and poor condition of work. Instead, the government and the manpower exporters compete with each other to claim credit for foreign remittance and its impact on our economic development. It is therefore no wonder that BAIRA went public on the new policy for export of manpower to Malaysia because it threatens to expose some of the plights of the overseas job seekers.
It has long been known that our overseas job seekers are charged exorbitant amount of money by manpower agents. There seemed to be a powerful nexus sustaining the exploitation of the poor expatriates. Even when the overseas job seekers have been cheated blatantly at home, little action has been taken against the culprits. In case of Malaysia, manpower agents have sent large number job seekers against call-visas that were not employment visas. These job seekers became illegal migrants. Many also became illegal after overstaying to pay back the high costs they incurred to go to Malaysia. Their cases are being legalized as a result of recent initiatives of the Government after years of inhuman sufferings.
The case of exporting manpower to Malaysia, a major market for Bangladeshi manpower, by the Ministry under the new plan is therefore a major development in a critical economic activity of the country where there has been very little fairness to those who literally place their lives on line for Bangladesh. If the Ministry succeeds in bringing costs down substantially for the Malaysian market, it will also be able to do so for the ME market as well.
BAIRA’s reaction to the Minister’s announcement about the Malaysian market was therefore expected. Manpower agents are apprehensive that with the Ministry entering into the manpower business in a major way as announced by the Minister, it is not just costs that would come down for the overseas job seekers. It would bring a lot of transparency that in turn would expose the exploitation that manpower agents and the middlemen have been carrying out with quiet approval of the government in overseas manpower business so far. In fact, this new initiative announced by the Minister is the first major step taken by the Government for overseas job seekers where so far they were being systematically victimized.
However, the new initiative is first step in the right direction. Much more would be needed to be done. The whole manpower business should be given a legal framework. At present, when job seekers are cheated or dealt in any unfair manner, he/she has no access under the law for quick redress. For the job seekers, it is the case of “justice delayed is justice denied “ for the laws that are there just take too long to come to their rescue. This is why we see job seekers cheated by manpower agents regularly while manpower agents are seldom brought to justice for their misdeeds. The legal framework should make it mandatory that contract of every job seeker is legally examined so that any discrepancy in contract is accounted for.
The Ministry must also ensure that our expatriate workers do not go abroad without training or without some preliminary knowledge of the conditions they are expected to face in their place of work. The expatriate workers must know their legal status in their places of work so that they do not run into conflict with local laws. Most important of all, the expatriate workers must know that they have consular assistance just for the asking from Bangladesh Embassies/consulates. They should be provided with all the information they need to know in case they want to seek consular assistance from Embassies/consulates.
The Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Embassies are not an integral part of the manpower business as in case of other manpower exporting countries. The countries importing manpower do so under laws that are not arbitrary and conform to international standards. Our expatriates unfortunately fall into hands of unscrupulous manpower agents, brokers, etc both at home and in countries where they go to work because in most cases, they have no legal assistance either at home or abroad. Abroad, the Embassies must become a critical part of the legal process of the country’s overseas manpower business. They must know the local employers of our expatriates and the conditions of their appointment. In case our expatriates are contracted by the government, then the Embassies could ensure that there is no discrimination against them. Even where the expatriates are contracted in the private sector, the Embassies can be of tremendous assistance to ensure fair and equitable treatment for our expatriates that is not so to a very large extent at present. Discrimination and injustice in their places of work is a major misfortune of our expatriates in their place of work. The Embassies must ensure that our workers do not face such discrimination.
This government has established a bank for the expatriates. One wonders whether it has been established for bringing remittance home or for assisting the expatriates in dealing with their problems to go abroad for jobs. If it is for remittance, then it is an effort totally wasted for without it, the country is doing fine with foreign remittance. A bank such as this is needed desperately to provide loan to the prospective expatriate avoid the killer loan shark to go abroad. It is not just this bank but all private sector banks that must be encouraged by the government to provide loan at reasonable interests to the prospective expatiate to avoid the loan shark. Surely, those who send home US$12 billion a year cannot be questioned on credibility about their ability to pay back loans with the burden of collateral that he/she cannot raise at the point of leaving for an overseas job. Banks should provide loans to these overseas job seekers without collateral once they show proof of a valid overseas employment.
BAIRA’s concerns and anger with the Minister suggest that they are afraid that the Ministry would bring transparency in the business and with it justice in a system where injustice has been deliberately imposed by a nexus that manpower agents have built with bipartisan political support in government. The result of that nexus has been unbelievable amounts of money for manpower agents and misery for the expatriates; a zero-sum game at its worst. The Minister is on the right track and should expand the Malaysian case to develop a comprehensive; legally sustainable and transparent policy for the overseas manpower sector.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.