Between a lack of regulation on the part of the government, and unscrupulous and often criminal practices in the thriving underworld of unregulated labour export, Bangladeshi migrant workers are left quite unprotected.
By : Saad Hammadi
His organisation sends Bangladeshis out of the country by utilising fake passports, Hasan Fakir, a core member of a Dhaka-based manpower-trafficking syndicate, recently confessed. Fakir, who runs a labour-recruitment agency, was arrested by the authorities on 3 June. He was accused of illegally sending one Basir Uddin to Malaysia, and later demanding ransom from Basir’s family in exchange for his release from the syndicate’s custody.
As a 35-year-old betel-leaf-seller, it had become increasingly difficult for Basir to support an extended family that consisted of his parents, his wife and two children, and the families of three of his brothers. Basir made up his mind to go to Malaysia in May, after having been convinced by a neighbour, Idris Ali, that doing so could allow him at long last to provide his family with financial security. Idris offered to send Basir to Malaysia for an initial payment of BDT 50,000 (USD 725) and another BDT 20,000 after he began earning in Malaysia.
After a verbal agreement, on 17 May Basir gave Idris BDT 52,000 along with his passport; the following day, Idris arranged Basir’s flight to Malaysia. In his excitement, Basir did not bother to ask how the arrangements had been managed so quickly, nor the nature of the job awaiting him. At the Kuala Lumpur airport, he was received by a man named Lokman, a member of a Malaysian counterpart to Fakir’s unnamed recruiting agency.
Two days after the initial payment was made, Lokman called Basir’s family members and asked them for the remaining BDT 20,000. Basir’s elder brother, Rajab Ali, recalls that Lokman warned that unless the money was paid, Basir would not get a job. Following the conversation, Rajab and several senior members of Basir’s village arranged for the money to be transferred to Lokman.
Less than a week later, on 25 May, Lokman called again. “Forget about the money you paid earlier,” he said, according to Rajab. “You have to pay another 100,000 taka to my brother, Hasan Fakir, by 31 May. Otherwise, your brother will be cut to pieces and fed to a dog.” In a panic, the family turned to the police.
On 3 June, in an undercover operation, the elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) captured Hasan Fakir and one of his associates in Dhaka. In custody, Fakir confessed that he had sent Basir to Malaysia on a fake passport with just a two-day transit visa. In early July, the Dhaka authorities had yet to make progress in rescuing Basir. Meanwhile, Hasan and an accomplice named Mojibar Mridha were released on bail just four days after their arrest. Basir, meanwhile, remained within their grasp in Malaysia.
In mid-July in Brussels, the United Nations sponsored the first-ever Global Forum on Migration and Development. According to the five-member Bangladeshi delegation, levels of manpower trafficking could drop significantly if all stakeholders could be brought under one umbrella. At the conclusion of the forum, the Bangladesh envoys offered a list of recommendations to ease the vulnerabilities of overseas labourers: reducing the cost of migration and ensuring the safety of migrants and their families; co-management of temporary labour migration with the involvement of all stakeholders; and establishing a national or regional migration resource centre. Despite delving into a variety of migration-related issues, however, the summit did barely touched on the issue of manpower trafficking in developing countries, particularly in Bangladesh.
Indeed, even as Basir Uddin remains a hostage in the hands of Bangladeshi manpower traffickers, more and more Bangladeshis are falling victim to similar schemes. Some are reported to have served jail time in foreign lands; others, having realised that their migration was illegal, have gone into hiding. The situation is compounded by the fact that, in most of the recruiting countries (particularly Malaysia and the Gulf states), Bangladeshi migrants receive next to no support from the Dhaka government – a factor that only further encourages unscrupulous recruiting agencies.
Labour export is one of the most lucrative businesses in Bangladesh. While poor Bangladeshis are easily convinced to go abroad for work, the rich countries are increasingly desperate for cheap labour. Labour import through illegal channels can nearly halve labour costs for the host countries, a fact that has convinced governments in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere to keep open a ‘backdoor’ in their immigration policy.
Of course, Bangladesh’s human-trafficking problems also go beyond extortion by dishonest agents. Human-rights organisations regularly point to a network of local recruitment agencies, working with counterparts in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Dubai and the United Arab Emirates, that continue to recruit women with the promise of well-paid jobs, but instead force them into exploitative domestic work or sexual service. Male labourers, on the other hand, are given jobs in farming, construction work and porter services. According to Rights Jessore, a Bangladesh-based human-rights organisation, a migrant is often forced to take on the work of two or three workers for the pay of one.
According to the University of Dhaka-affiliated Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU), 60 percent of Bangladesh’s migrant labourers go abroad through their own social networks; the remaining 40 percent go through private recruiting agencies of various shades. Foreign companies typically provide their manpower requirements directly to these agencies, which then find potential labourers through their brokers’ networks. Although travel agencies are not regulated under Bangladesh’s Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET), they too often run such businesses under the table. Travel and manpower agencies then compete to purchase visas from foreign employers, essentially auctioning off labourers at ever cheaper rates. For this reason, while the average Pakistani and Sri Lankan labourer in Malaysia earns around MYR 925 (USD 270) per month, a Bangladeshi earns less than MYR 500.
In the initial demand letters and work permits, foreign employers generally commit to pay handsome salaries. But victims say that the bosses renege on promises after the labourer has arrived, threatening to nullify the worker’s contract or to turn him in for supposedly fraudulent papers unless he accedes to lower pay. The demand letters are often misused even before the migrant leaves Bangladesh. According to Nahreen Farjana of the International Organisation for Migration, an inter-governmental agency advocating humane migration policies, some recruiting agents in Bangladesh have made fortunes off of a single demand letter, by committing it to more than one person. Through this trick, agents can earn up to BDT 250,000 (USD 3600) from a single document.
On their own
According to the Welfare Association of Repatriated Bangladeshi Employees (WARBE), approximately 300,000 migrant workers go overseas every year. (It is estimated that around ten percent of that number are women.) Farjana points out that no one has any idea of how many people are returning each year: the BMET only keeps records of those Bangladeshis who leave the country on legal employment visas, not of those travelling on tourist or transit visas. Intelligence sources estimate that the number of people sent abroad through illegal channels exceeds the annual average for legal migration.
While Dhaka officials say they are aware of the problems faced by Bangladeshi migrant labourers in the host countries, they also complain that their overseas offices are overwhelmed. “In recent times, the migration flow to Malaysia has increased rapidly; and our labour wing in Malaysia is unable to tackle the situation,” says Abdul Matin Chowdhury, secretary in the Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment.
For almost ten years, the Malaysian authorities restricted recruitment from Bangladesh due to allegations of frequent job switchovers by Bangladeshi migrants, as well as complaints about their proclivity to marry local women. Malaysia’s manpower shortages have grown, however, and the Kuala Lumpur government eventually lifted the ban in mid-2006. A revised agreement forced Dhaka to fix a migration fee of BDT 86,000 (USD 1250), to protect migrant labours from overcharging by recruiting agents. Among other things, Dhaka now had also to accept liability to try an accused for violating any Malaysian law. With the human-resource export to Malaysia once
again open, massive numbers of people are now entering the country through legal and illegal channels. According to official reports, more than 104,000 Bangladeshi workers went to Malaysia between January and June of 2007 – the highest manpower export to any country within that period.
Lack of firm evidence has also been a crucial obstacle to migrant victims who seek justice, says Farjana. “Brokers manage to collect the money without documents – or, for that matter, any receipt,” she explains. “More awareness should be raised on the importance of maintaining documentary evidence of the transaction of money between the broker, recruiting agency and the migrant – as was pointed out at the Brussels meet – by way of co-management and reducing the information gap.”
In the meantime, what all of this confirms is the fact that Bangladeshi migrants, victimised or not, are largely on their own, legally and otherwise. Including the passport, visa and travel expenditures, it is now officially supposed to cost a Bangladeshi migrant around BDT 86,000 to go to Malaysia. Many recruiting agents lure prospective labourers with prices lower than that amount, but then overcharge them by 200 to 300 percent by blackmail, as was done in Basir’s case. With the government unable to effectively monitor the situation, such exploitation has become a vicious cycle: foreign employers are able to get labourers at prices much lower than their official declarations, while the recruiting agencies are able to take a hefty cut from the labourers’ salaries.
Government efforts at regulation are complicated by the inclination of illegal migrants to use unofficial hundi networks to transfer money back home. Remittances make up a massive percentage of Bangladesh’s annual income; officially, these are expected to top USD 6 billion this year, although the unofficial estimate is significantly higher. In 2006, the Bangladesh Overseas Employment Policy recommended diverting all remittances and investments through official banks, but implementation of that recommendation has been stalled by the significant level of illegal migration. Those who have already migrated illegally naturally prefer to utilise the hundi networks, for fear of exposing themselves to the authorities at both ends.
Using official money transfer methods could make for a much more secure migration process, in which migrants would be less vulnerable to deception. “It can ensure the recruiting agencies’ authenticity, as the Bangladesh Bank can directly monitor their financial transaction,” says Wing Commander Sultan Muhammad Noorani, head of the RAB’s third unit, which deals with a significant number of trafficking cases.
In the interests of increasing transparency, Noorani also urges the government to institute a policy that would require the accounts of recruiting agencies to be maintained by a government bank. C R Abrar, coordinator of the University of Dhaka’s RMMRU agrees on the importance of this, emphasising that, “for that matter, it is also necessary to issue licenses to the numerous agents and sub-agents across the country, in order to ensure accountability.” RMRRU has made similar recommendations in the past, but Abrar says that these have not been able to be implemented due to the interest among recruiting agencies to secure their illegal income. Indeed, BMET officials admit to being unable to monitor the activities of even the 750 recruiting agencies that are currently registered, while law-enforcement officials say that more than twice that number are operating illegally.
According to a 2006 report by the UN’s population agency, human trafficking is the third-largest illicit business worldwide, after trade in arms and drugs. With the massive amount of money to be made, any crackdown on illegal labour export in Bangladesh will be significantly hindered by the complex web of those involved: travel and recruiting agencies, passport and visa forgers, agents and sub-agents, all working in active connivance with government officials at home and abroad. To show how all-pervading is the rot, former members of Parliament have been fingered in cases of human trafficking, as have media personalities, television-station owners and powerful members of the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies.
While to date all-out action has not been taken against high-level figures, the identity of many individuals has not escaped the notice of the government. In the absence of government directive, however, law-enforcement officials often fail to take action against the bigwigs, further exacerbating the victimisation of Bangladeshi overseas labourers. One highly placed official within the joint forces said recently, “We can initiate action against the manpower syndicates as soon as we have the government’s directive.” There is little indication that such a directive is forthcoming.
Anatomy of a bootlegger’s syndicate
On 12 June, upon complaint from several manpower-agency victims, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) undertook an overnight raid across several localities of Dhaka. During the course of the operation, the RAB uncovered a gang of passport and visa bootleggers of surprising sophistication. A haul of 250 Bangladeshi passports was made, along with fake visas and immigration stamps for Thailand, Malaysia, India, Nepal, Korea, Japan, the UAE and Ukraine.
The RAB arrested eight scam artists, each of whom specialised in a particular skill within a single firm. The arrested claimed that, for BDT 120,000 (USD 1750), they offered a prospective illegal migrant labourer a package that included a passport, stamped visa, work permit, birth certificate, character certificate, bank statement and other such documents as required.
Indeed, the network was a veritable forger’s factory, built up over the years with all the arrangements necessary to complete the migration process. According to the RAB, the group is well connected, including to immigration officers at airports in Bangladesh and abroad. One of the accused, Mahfuzul Alam, who forged visas, said that the fakes are immediately identifiable to immigration officials because the necessary codes do not match. “From the original visas, the impression is scanned on computer, and later the information on it is replaced with that of the customer’s passport,” he explained. With such easy identification of fakes, the need for the collusion of authorities at the airport becomes obvious.
Bachchu, another of the arrested, reported that his boss was able to turn out a fake passport within an hour. Bachchu said that his job was simply to funnel in customers, in exchange for a commission. “I stood near the Biman office, where every day hundreds of customers would come for ticketing and immigration consultations at the nearby recruiting agencies,” he explained. “I would then tell those people about our quick processing of their visas, along with all the necessary papers.” Work, evidently, was brisk.
This article was first published in Nepal based South Asian magazine HIMAL SOUTHASIAN in its August 2007 Issue