The exploitative practices centring Bangladeshi workers in Malaysia constitute nothing other than human trafficking; the governments of Bangladesh and Malaysia have not been able to protect the workers’ rights, said Irene Fernandez, a veteran migrants’ rights activist of Malaysia.
Malaysian outsourcing companies and their directors are in it to make money overnight without any capital, said Irene, director of Tenaganita, a human rights organisation.
Irne was arrested in 1996 and charged with false reporting, for a report on the living conditions of the migrant workers, published in 1995. After seven years of trial, Irene was found guilty in 2003 and sentenced to one-year imprisonment. She was later freed on bail. In November 2008, the court overturned her conviction and acquitted her of the charges.
In 2005, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award for her outstanding and courageous work for stopping violence against women and abuses of migrant and poor workers. Irene Fernandez recently talked to The Daily Star in her Kuala Lumpur office.
The Daily Star:<.b> What is the overall scenario of Bangladeshi workers in Malaysia?
Irene: Since lifting of the ban on hiring Bangladeshis in 2006 after ten years, Malaysia allowed 3 lakh Bangladeshis to come to this country. That is a massive recruitment. Being massive, it comes with a lot of problems.
The Malaysian government also changed the recruitment process. We saw the emergence of outsourcing companies that did not exist before. Before, it was the recruiting agencies in Bangladesh that arranged recruitment of workers with employers in Malaysia. With that, there were fewer problems. With outsourcing, it created another level for the migrant workers to go through. The outsourcing companies have contracts that each worker will get paid a minimum of 400 Malaysian ringgit (RM), no matter whether he has a job or not. And then when he gets a job, he must get overtime. In total, he is supposed to get 700 ringgit or more a month. The migrant workers come to Malaysia with that conception in mind.
But, shockingly many workers did not find jobs, as a surplus number of workers were brought in. The outsourcing companies were not committed to ensure employment, rather they were interested only in collecting as much money as possible from the migrant workers through Bangladeshi job brokers in Malaysia, who sold and re-sold workers.
When they brought workers in surplus numbers to Malaysia, they were only interested in making fast cash. The outsourcing companies told Bangladeshi job brokers ‘you pay me 500 ringgit per worker and find jobs for them and do whatever’. So, Bangladeshi job brokers then bought the workers from the outsourcing companies, and literally made them slaves. The brokers then told the workers ‘you go and work, I will give you food and lodging’. And the workers were put to work for two, three, or four months. So, the contract that had been signed between the workers and recruiting agencies in Bangladesh, which was attested by the Bangladesh government, had no meaning any more.
The question is now, why no action is being taken against the Malaysian outsourcing companies for the fact that they violated the contracts. Again, the governments of both countries have not been able to enforce the rules. Malaysia has to make its companies accountable, and Bangladesh has to make its recruiting agencies accountable. Because the passports of the workers are being held and the workers who don’t have any job are being locked up by the job brokers or the outsourcing companies, it constitutes nothing but human trafficking. And, with the global economic recession, the situation is going to worsen, because many of the companies, particularly in the manufacturing sector, are collapsing.
The Daily Star: Workers alleged that employers held their passports and demanded ransom for their return.
Irene: Yes, the workers are being blackmailed in any form possible. And the most ridiculous situation for me is that the Malaysian government is not doing anything against the outsourcing companies. We have a special passport act that stipulates that no person is allowed to hold any other person’s passport.
The Daily Star: What is the role of the Bangladesh High Commission in addressing the problems?
Irene: There must be government-to-government recruitment. There is no necessity for arrangements where brokers exist. The Bangladesh government has to be more proactive through its mission in Malaysia, and ensure that once the workers are recruited, they are taken care of. The high commission needs to have its own research department here to look for opportunities, and see how those could benefit the workers best. Now, the government has no clue of what the labour market is all about here. Once the Malaysian government allowed Bangladeshis, they flooded here putting themselves in danger. All the middle layers of labour recruitment must be abolished because they are eating up the money of the poor people.
Look into the case of the Philippines. They have many technicians working here with good salaries. The system is not perfect, but they have a framework and monitoring system. They know how to exercise their rights if they are deprived. Bangladeshi recruiting agents seem to be exploiting and cheating the workers more because they have a certain level of support from the Bangladeshi government.
The Daily Star: Do you think there is any link between politics and recruitment business?
Irene: Of course, something is wrong in the deal, otherwise things would not be as aggravated as they are now. We experienced similar serious problems regarding migrant workers in 2007 and 2008, which continue till now. The objective of the whole process of labour recruitment through outsourcing is predicated upon how much money we can make. And persons with political clout are being able to exploit the system.
The Daily Star: The registered employer companies who are supposed to have jobs for workers but don’t, are allegedly acting like outsourcing companies for other companies illegally. How do they work?
Irene: As they see that outsourcing agencies can make money by bringing in workers, they also started acting like the outsourcing companies. There are companies in Malaysia that have only desks, but are bringing say 2,000 workers, and making money by selling them to other companies or job brokers.
The Daily Star: The Malaysian home ministry gives approvals for bringing in workers. Doesn’t the ministry have responsibility to verify if the companies really have jobs to offer?
Irene: The ministry has been completely avoiding the issue of verifying whether a company genuinely has jobs to offer. Verifications have been largely on documents only. So, anybody can have a company with a letterhead and can get approvals for brining in Bangladeshi workers. Now there is no system of verifying if any company looking for migrant workers really have jobs to offer.
Source: The Daily Star, 11 April 2009