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     Volume 8 Issue 91 | October 23, 2009 |

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Cover Story

Life in aLimbo

Going to an uncertain future.

As the sun sets on the picturesque island of Penang, Tuhin, a Bangladeshi migrant worker living in Malaysia, sets up his makeshift shop in front of the Holiday-Inn Hotel at Batu Ferringhi. A few minutes later he comes to know that immigration officers are about to make a raid on the open-air bazaar in search of illegal workers. Wasting no time, he walks through the hotel lobby to disappear into the beach. He has escaped arrest once again.

M Abul Kalam Azad
Photos: Zahedul I Khan

"This is not the first time that we have faced a raid: many of us are on the run all the time,” 27-year-old Tuhin who hails from the southern district of Jessore, says, adding: “We have not always been as lucky as we are today though. Sixteen Bangladeshi workers were picked up in a similar raid and were thrown into jail on August 27."

Tuhin has his passport at hand; he has a valid visa and a work permit too, yet he is an illegal worker in the eyes of the stringent Malaysian recruitment law, as he does not work for the company he has been hired for. He is just one of the hundreds of ill-fated Bangladeshis lured by manpower recruiting agents who have promised decent jobs to these poor souls.

Tuhin says that he was cheated from the very beginning by his recruiting agency: “We, 55 migrant workers, had paid Tk 2.50 lakh each for a job in an auto factory in Kuala Lumpur. We were promised an air-conditioned atmosphere where everyone wears a tie.” Tuhin, who blames his misfortune on no one but his Bangladeshi agents, says, “I came to know at the airport that the government had fixed a Tk 84,000 recruitment fee,” Tuhin says.

Migrant workers planning to go to Malaysia at a training centre in Dhaka.

Despite this, the workers were happy thinking of getting a job and earning money, which would change their lives. But their hopes were dashed when, upon landing at Kuala Lumpur, they were sent to a machine-tools factory to do hard work like pulling and carrying slabs of heavy metal for hours. But the worst part was that none of them were paid the promised salary.

When many of the workers fell sick doing the backbreaking work, they raised the matter with the owner of the company and lodged a complaint with him. The owner told them that he had an agreement with the agent and he would not do anything about it. “He showed no sympathy as he was part of the conspiracy,” Tuhin says as Mosharraf, another Bangladeshi worker, arrives and tells him that the immigration police are gone and he can return safely to the night market. Mosharraf, who hails from Comilla, runs a leather bag shop and has also been hiding from the immigration officers.

As he leaves the beach, Tuhin says that one day their Malaysian agent went to the machine factory and asked them whether they would work there or leave with their passports. “It was heart-breaking for us as we thought a better situation would be awaiting us,” he says. He, along with 25 others, left Kuala Lumpur for Penang, paying RM 1000 to get back their passports.

Like Tuhin, there are hundreds of workers in Malaysia toiling for their livelihood in the foreign land. They are being compelled to leave Kuala Lumpur to avoid working in an adverse condition, knowing the risks of being arrested anytime, jailed and sent back home, which has become a common phenomenon for Bangladeshi workers in many countries.

Engineer Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain, Minister of Labour and Employment and Expatriates Welfare, has said that he does not have any good news to offer to the lost souls of Malaysia. "But I can assure you that there is a huge demand for Bangladeshi workers in that country and more and more people are going there on a regular basis," he says.

Manpower export is Bangladesh's second largest foreign currency earner.

But the problem, he thinks, is that the agents in both Bangladesh and Malaysia who create an artificial demand to get some extra commission. "So," he says, "they take in as many migrant workers as possible, even though the real demand may not be there." He claims that a vicious circle is at work. "I am trying my best to break out of it," he says.

According to the Bangladesh High Commission in Kuala Lumpur, the number of Bangladeshi workers in the country is 3.72 lakh till March 2009 when Malaysia put an embargo on the recruitment. The number is, however, 4.51 lakh as per the data of Ministry of Human Resources in Malaysia. The illegal workers are in dire straits as they work secretly and are paid niggardly. The stories of their deprivation and suffering in Malaysia are well known to all.

Bangladesh's manpower export, which is the country's second highest foreign currency earner, has tumbled in recent years, due to mainly unabated fraud by dishonest people engaged in the trade at both ends. Bangladesh High Commissions across the world do nothing but put the workers from the frying pan into the fire. Over the years, many workers have returned home losing everything. Irregularities in the recruitment process often cause woes to many of the poor Bangladeshis who, on several occasions have been left unemployed or unpaid by the employers. They are also forced to work in adverse conditions, and are tortured when they demand fair wages. The workers have been blaming both the recruiting agencies and the successive governments, who have miserably failed to manage the sector by punishing the culprits.

Irregularities in the recruitment process often land the migrant workers into trouble.

The big blow for Bangladesh came when Malaysia cancelled the work visas of 55,000 Bangladeshi workers last March, saying that the country was hit by the global economic downturn. The decision has left the Bangladeshi workers, who have already spent lakhs of taka to get visas, in a limbo. Nobody knows when the ban will go.

However, AKM Atiqur Rahman, Bangladesh's newly appointed high commissioner in Kuala Lumpur, has remained optimistic. “Malaysia has a huge demand for workers. We are holding talks with the Malaysian authorities. The restriction on the 55,000 visas may go anytime,” he says.

There are widespread allegations that a section of Bangladesh high commission officials are engaged with the dishonest manpower brokers in that country. Atiqur Rahman says he is very firm on eliminating every irregularity in the high commission. “My mission is to root out corruption in the high commission. But, I cannot be held responsibility for the earlier corruption,” he says.

Around 372 lakh Bangladeshi migrant workers live in Malaysia.

However, the Labour and Employment and Expatriates Welfare Minister claims that he his trying his best to dig deep into the anomalies. "I am going to fix it soon and bring the culprits to book, the situation is intolerable, it can't go on like this," he says.

Both the Bangladeshi migrant workers and the Bangladesh high commission officials firmly believe that the crises involving manpower recruitment will come to an end once Bangladesh becomes a source country for workers. Source countries are those from where Malaysia can hire workers any time the Southeast Asian country wishes. Malaysia currently hires workers from Bangladesh under special arrangement under which the outsourcing companies can hire workers and employ them in various jobs. It is these outsourcing agents, which eat up a good portion of the wages that the workers get. This system is not applicable for the workers of the countries listed as source countries by Malaysia, Asia's emerging economy. Malaysia has 13 source countries in central and south Asia from where the Malaysian employers hire workers whenever they need. As Bangladesh is not in the list of the source nations, it creates an opportunity for the recruiting agents, manpower brokers and lobbyists at both the ends to make profit by manipulating the recruiting process and deceive poor workers.

“Once Bangladesh becomes a source country, recruitment of workers will be transparent and organised, it will cut down the influence of the syndicates and the woes of the workers,” observes first secretary (labour) Masudur Rahman at Bangladesh High Commission in Kuala Lumpur. “It is the workers who will get the benefit of it, as it will introduce a strong system through which a particular number of workers will be recruited for certain companies.”

But, in the case of Bangladesh, the employers need a special permission from the Malaysian government. “I am sincerely working so that Malaysia includes Bangladesh in its source country list,” says Bangladesh's high commissioner Atiqur Rahman.

Mustafizur Rahman, a small trader in Kuala Lumpur, says the Bangladesh government should start

Many Bangladeshi migrant workers are sent back home empty handed.

strong lobbying with the Malaysian government so that Bangladesh can soon become a source country. “Workers from the source countries enjoy better salary, benefits and, above all, a better life in this country. They can even bargain with the Malaysia authorities to increase their salary and other facilities,” says Mustafizur, who has been living in the country for the last 17 years.

He says that if excess workers from a source country somehow come to Malaysia and don't get a job, they just go back with the money they paid to the recruiting agency. And they don't face any problem in this regard.

“The main reason behind the miseries of the Bangladeshi workers is that many extra workers are hired against the demand for making additional money. No one can recruit additional workers from a source country,” says Tuhin.

Talking to many Bangladeshi workers in different places of the country it has been seen that there is a strong syndicate of Bangladeshi and Malaysian manpower brokers who do not want Bangladesh to be recognised as a source country.

Explaining the overall condition of Bangladeshi workers in Malaysia, Tuhin says they are not doing badly in Penang. “You can describe it as a situation that is 'better than the bad'," says Tuhin, who does not have any idea about how many Bangladeshis --legal and illegal -- are staying in Penang, a place rich in heritage, listed as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) World Heritage Site in 2008. Thousands of tourists from all across the globe go to shining Penang.

Bangladeshi workers Anwar, Saiful Haq, Milon, Shafique, Shah Alam, Shahdat, Zaman and Tarek -- all have said that their sufferings will not go unless the government becomes strong and bring the recruiting agencies under its surveillance. “The number one enemy of a migrant worker is the agents, then the high commission and the government,” observes Tuhin, adding that they can't even eat and sleep properly, as they are always in fear of being harassed and arrested.

The workers say that the reputation of Bangladesh as a country is very bad everywhere in Malaysia due to the illicit activities of the agents. During the two-year regime of the caretaker government, many wanted criminals travelled to Malaysia to escape arrest, imprisonment or killing in crossfire. “This has also helped the existing trouble to deepen,” says Milon who left Natore a few months ago for a better life in Malaysia.

There are many workers, who are doing well; but thousands of others, who can neither work nor return home, are heavily in debt; the amount goes up with every passing month. Mobarak is one of those who worked double shift, but his employer later significantly reduced his salary, ultimately forcing him to leave the job. Even though Mobarak has all the valid documents to legally work in the country, he is now an “illegal” and works secretly in a cable construction company.

“I can neither go home nor can I do a job fair enough to send some money home for my family. I am stuck here in this foreign land,” Mobarak says, staring vacantly at the Strait of Malacca. The sun, meanwhile, goes down, darkness descends. He prepares for another day of misery and helplessness.


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