September 30, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
What is happening in this country? Thousands of crores of Taka are swindled from the banks and nothing happens. When there is widespread demand to bring the Hall Mark people to face the law; the Government at first called the public outcry as “nonsense” and then gave the alleged swindlers 15 days to repay. The alleged swindlers have now asked 20 years to do so and the Government is silent! When people close to the party in power and some indirectly in control of the Security Exchange Commission swindled the public of thousands of crores, most of it money of poor and ordinary people, the government’s response was to protect the swindlers leaving those who were swindled to rue for themselves.
The Ministry of Expatriate Affairs did something exceptional recently against this trend. For a government facing censure from the public for being soft on those who are allegedly cheating and swindling the poor and the unfortunate, it did something pro-poor and pro-the unfortunate. It signed an agreement with the Malaysian Government under which it will send Bangladeshis to work in Malaysia on a government to government basis, sidelining what the Minister called “dalals”, a stinking Bangla equivalent of “agent” or “middle-man”. What was music to the ears of the millions of our unfortunate fellow citizens who hope to go abroad to work, the Minister said that each Bangladeshi to be sent to Malaysia under this programme would pay Taka 35-40,000 each and would be able to serve in that country for 5 years, enough to pay back the money they would have to loan to go abroad and bring money back in the bargain.
The Bangladesh Association for International Recruiting Agents (BAIRA) held a meeting against this decision of the Ministry of Expatriate Affairs that would keep them out of the new arrangement. They threatened the Ministry that if they are not allowed to take part in the new arrangement, they would stop sending manpower to the other countries. BAIRA also stated that the Taka 35- 40,000 that the Government has agreed as the amount to be paid by the workers is high. BAIRA said that if their members are allowed to enter the export of manpower to Malaysia, the costs would be between Taka 10 and 15 thousand.
BAIRA’s figures on costs are difficult to believe. Investigative reports on export of manpower have documented that on an average our workers paid nearly Taka 2 lacs to manpower agents to go to Malaysia in the past while the government charged Taka 84,000. These reports have also revealed that compared to workers from other South Asian countries, Bangladeshi workers pay substantially more for working in the Middle East. That is not the end of their miseries. Bangladeshi workers often find on their arrival in their destinations that they are paid much less than what the manpower agents promised them. Many of these workers go abroad selling their meager possessions or loaning money at exorbitant rates of interests from money lenders. When they find that they are not paid their promised salaries, many run away from their jobs to find better paying jobs to pay back their loans.
In Saudi Arabia, there are over two lac Bangladeshi workers who are running from the law as illegal immigrants. The Prime Minister took up this problem with the King of Saudi Arabia in April 2009. On return home, the Foreign Minister stated in the media, that upon the Prime Minister’s intervention, the issue would be resolved. It has not been. In fact, in the meantime, the conditions of Bangladeshi workers in Saudi Arabia have worsened. Even where Bangladeshi workers receive their agreed salaries, they are often subjected to discriminations. Workers from Bangladesh are paid substantially less than workers from other countries working in the same type of jobs in the Middle East.
There is no dearth to loud claims from the government and the manpower agents of their great contribution to our economy through foreign remittance of our workers abroad that they help send. There is sadly no concern from anyone, the government, the manpower agents, about the unfortunate realities in the lives of our workers abroad. In fact, quite a good number of these workers regularly die in their places of work as a result of the tensions they are subjected to once they find that the manpower agents who sent the abroad have cheated them.
We send the third largest number of workers after Saudi Arabia and UAE, to Malaysia. The Malaysian experience for our workers has been very sad and unfortunate. No one who went to Malaysia was able to go there paying the amount that BAIRA has sated it its press conference. They paid much higher charges. Many of them were also cheated. Manpower exporters in collusion with their collaborators in Malaysia used “call visas” to send thousands of Bangladeshis to Malaysia who became illegal immediately upon arriving in the country. Call visas are not work visas that are issued to employers in Malaysia to let them import manpower from overseas but only after completing many formalities that takes a long time before they can actually bring manpower to the country.
Thus when Bangladeshis arrived in Malaysia on “call visas”, they had no jobs and many just had to turn illegal in order to earn the money they loaned to pay the manpower agents. Many of these unfortunate Bangladeshis eventually lost their lives or fell into the hands of the authorities and faced untold miseries. As the number of illegal Bangladeshis mounted, the Malaysians imposed many obstacles and at various times even threatened to stop recruiting manpower from Bangladesh.
Malaysia is heavily dependent on foreign workers. Bangladeshis have a good reputation as foreign workers. It is because of this good reputation that Malaysia has now decided to open its manpower market to Bangladesh and made the offer on a government to government basis so that the nexus of evil on both sides, between our manpower agents and their partners in Malaysia are not allowed to interfere in the business against the interests of the workers.
The Malaysian initiative is one for which the Ministry of Expat Affairs deserve to be congratulated. It should dismiss the BAIRA threat because it is BAIRA that would need to make the Ministry happy to continue business in which they have been minting money at the misery of the workers. The Ministry should realize its limitations because it would be impossible for it to send the huge number of workers to Malaysia on its own. It would have to allow the manpower agents to implement a major part of the agreement but in its terms. It should set the model structure for pay and conditions of workers by sending the number of workers it can handle so that the manpower agents are compelled to work within it and uphold the interests of the workers instead of making them the victims of their hugely lucrative business.
In fact, the Ministry should negotiate with other manpower importing countries to enter into more government to government agreements to set the same model for manpower business as the Malaysian one (assuming one would be set) so that the workers whose blood and sweat gives Bangladesh those US$ 11 billion in foreign remittance so crucial to its economic development are not made the victims of the manpower business as they are at present. The manpower business does not have any legal framework. Thus we see many reports of our workers being cheated regularly but no instance of those who cheat being punished. There is also need to fast track cases in manpower business for protecting the interest of the workers. Finally, it is also important to bring the Bangladesh Embassies into the loop not for damage control but as an integral part of the structure where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Expat Affairs would work as a team that it does not at present..
The writer is a former Secretary and Ambassador.