Ahmed Bilal, left, a citizen from the Sylhet region of Bangladesh and a survivor of a boat carrying migrants that sunk in the Mediterranean during the night of 9 and 10 May, rests with fellow survivors at a shelter in the Tunisian coastal city of Zarzis on Saturday. About sixty people perished when a boat carrying around 70 migrants sunk in the Mediterranean, Tunisian official said. — AFP photo
Workers migration from Bangladesh to the destination countries has been mired in trouble of various kinds — from recruitment process to remaining jobless or unpaid in the countries of destination to falling victims of abuse and torture at the hands of the employers, these are issues that remained unresolved for long.
With a view to controlling the unspecified number of middlemen engaged in the recruitment process of workers from Bangladesh and those who control over the process of overseas employment, the government is set to take steps to bring them under a legal framework, said officials and experts.
While some experts have hailed the decision as timely, there are others who believe that this won’t be enough to protect the migrant workers from the clutches of the middlemen. As for the country’s recruiting agencies, they raised strong objections against such government steps.
Under the government initiative, all of the licensed recruiting agencies in Bangladesh will have to enlist profiles of their sub-agents and provide them identity cards from respective recruiting agencies, according to the Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment Ministry.
EWOE minister Imran Ahmad told New Age Tuesday that the government has already initiated moves to bring the middlemen under a legal framework. The aim is to protect migrants from the hassle caused by the middlemen and ensure discipline in the migration sector.
‘We will do it along with Bangladesh Association of International recruiting Agencies,’ he said.
Imran said that he already requested the BAIRA leaders to extend their offices to the district levels to recruit migrant workers from the grassroots level.
The minister said that the government neither wants to put the BAIRA’s business in jeopardy nor expects the recruiting agencies to exploit migrant workers in the name of business.
‘If middlemen are enlisted with their recruiting agencies, they could be easily identified. If middlemen commit any crimes, their licensed recruiting agencies would be brought to book,’ he said.
Imran Ahmad said that his ministry had already launched massive campaigns to create awareness at district-, upazila- and union-level to protect the poor migrant workers from the clutches of the middlemen.
However, BAIRA leaders strongly opposed the government moves that sought to bring the middlemen under legal framework, saying that the registered brokers might commit more offences by showing their ID cards to the people.
BAIRA secretary general Shameem Ahmed Chowdhury Noman told New Age that such attempts to bring middlemen under a legal framework failed to deliver in Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
He said that it would be very difficult for the 1400 recruiting agencies to enlist and control thousands of middlemen scattered in different strata of the society.
Shameem requested the government to introduce a central database of workers interested to work abroad for selection by the registered recruiting agencies. The database of the workers would reduce the migration cost,’ he said.
Meanwhile, migration experts and migrants’ rights campaigners praised the government’s moves and the instructions recently delivered by the prime minister to protect the migrants from harassment by the brokers.
They said that bringing the brokers under a legal framework would help ensure ‘accountability and transparency’ in the migration sector.
Involvement of the brokers in the trading of visas increased the cost of migration for Bangladeshi workers, they said, adding that the registration could bring positive impacts.
They mentioned that it was through the manipulation of middlemen, who work in collaboration with the rackets of traffickers, the migrant workers were sent abroad illegally without taking attestation from the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training and labour wings at Bangladesh missions abroad.
Middlemen plunge the migrant workers in danger in foreign lands, where they were often forced to work in underpaid jobs. The employers often treat them as slaves, they said.
According to BMET record, over 12.5 million workers from Bangladesh have so far migrated to overseas destinations since 1976.
About 80 per cent of them were employed in the Middle East and the East Asian countries, BMET officials said, adding that rest of the workers were scattered in Europe, Africa and America.
About 98 per cent of the country’s total migrants were sent abroad by the recruiting agencies and their brokers, officials and recruiters said, adding that the government sent rest of the workers whose numbers are negligible.
Migrant worker Shahjahan Miah from Bajitpur, in Kishoreganj said that local broker Faridul Islam sent him to Oman on a free visa with a payment of Tk 3.5 lakh.
‘I had to manage the migration cost by selling a piece of land, two cattle and some ornaments of my wife,’ he told New Age.
After landing in Muscat, he found no job, he said, adding that there were 20 more Bangladeshi workers staying in the labour camp looking for work there.
Into the 3rd month after migration, he returned home empty-handed.
‘Now I am running an auto-rickshaw in my locality to feed a four-member family,’ he said, adding that on return, he contacted the broker and the recruiting agency but failed to recover the money.
According to a study conducted by Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit of Dhaka University last year the middlemen were the real ‘merchant’ of migration in Bangladesh.
‘The middlemen not only provide service to the migrants but also provide information on jobs, bring in job contracts, facilitate receipt of air tickets and act as conduits of financial transactions,’ the study report says .
In many instances, the female migrants become heavily dependent on middlemen for processing passports and other facilities, the study found.
According to RMMRU study, around 51 per cent migrants experience fraudulence and humiliation during the process of migration and in the destination countries.
By interviewing 5331 migrants, the study on ‘Role of Middlemen in Migration Process’, conducted under the PROKAS project of British Council, found that that around 19 per cent of the migrants failed to go abroad after paying a portion or full cost for migration.
‘Around 32 per cent migrants had to face different types of sufferings in the destination countries,’ the study said.
Out of 32 per cent, 7 per cent experienced jail or detention, 10 per cent experienced police harassment, 14 per faced physical and mental torture, 12 per cent lived in inhuman conditions in deserts and jungles or remote islands and 10 per cent experienced non-payment or irregular payment of salary.
The study findings revealed that only 3 per cent of the migrants had gone abroad through formal recruiting agencies while around 97 per cent migrants go abroad through family members, friends and middlemen.
The RMMRU study recommended that the government should regularise the dalal system and bring them under the purview of migration and overseas employment act 2013.
When asked, global migration expert Syed Saiful Haque said that Bangladesh government must take actions against the rackets of brokers who were working as mafia gang and tarnishing the image of Bangladesh.
He said that the governments of origin and destination countries should work together taking bilateral steps to break the rackets of brokers and end trading of visas.
Saiful, also co-chair of Bangladesh Civil Society for Migration said that Bangladesh government should take up the visa trading issue with the labour receiving countries to cut the migration cost of the outgoing workers.
He noted that a parliamentary caucus on migration and development launched by deputy speaker of Bangladesh national parliament Fazle Rabbi Miah with its chair Israfil Alam, MP, has been campaigning for bringing the middlemen under legal framework.
On August 25, 2019, prime minister Sheikh Hasina issued orders to bring the brokers involved in sending workers abroad under a legal framework.
Senior officials from EWOE ministry and foreign ministry told New Age that the orders were issued to reduce the disturbances they create during migration of workers.
While chairing the first meeting of the National Steering Committee on Migration at the Prime Minister’s Office, Sheikh Hasina called for taking necessary steps to control the middlemen and protect the migrant workers.
The prime minister, who headed the National Steering Committee on Migration, formed in light of the Overseas Employment Policy 2016, also asked the recruiting agencies to work with ‘the mentality of serving people.’
On July 24, 2019, the third meeting of the parliamentary standing committee on EWOE ministry recommended that the sub-agents made an effort to register with the recruiting agencies to ensure transparency and accountability in sending workers abroad.
The parliamentary standing committee also recommended the EWOE ministry issued directives to the BAIRA to preserve complete profile of sub-agents of all recruiting agencies.
The committee also recommended providing ID cards to the sub-agents by the recruiting agencies with instructions that names, address and phone numbers of the agents must be sent to the office of the BMET director for employment.
If any recruiting agency does not have agents, BAIRA must send list of such recruiting agencies to the BMET, the committee said.
BRAC’s migration programme head Shariful Islam Hasan told New Age that the migration management in Bangladesh was heavily depended on the middlemen and for this reason migrant workers were compelled to pay a high migration cost for overseas jobs.
Due to the mismanagement at the government’s BMET and District Manpower Employment Offices, the middlemen had taken the opportunities to exploit the migrant workers, he said.
‘Till now there is no alternative to the middlemen in migration,’ said Shariful, a journalist turned migration expert.
Echoing the government’s steps, he said that every recruiting agency must enlist their sub-agents with ID cards.
He, however, suggested that the list of registered agents should be submitted to the local administration in each upazila, so that local people could remain aware of the activities of the middlemen.
Shariful said that if the government wanted sincerely to bring the brokers under legal framework, it would be successful in controlling them.
He emphasised the need for formalising the ‘structure of migration governance’ by grooming skilled workers at home for overseas jobs and authenticating their job visas from the destination countries to ensure safe and low-cost migration from Bangladesh.
According to Bangladesh High Commissions in Bandar Seri Begawan, about 75 per cent of Bangladeshi workers had been sent to Brunei in 2018 by the brokers in collaboration with immigration police at the airport through so-called ‘body contracts’.
Due to a strong control by the brokers over Bangladesh-Brunei recruitments, Bangladesh has been on the verge of losing the job market permanently, said officials at Bangladesh High Commission.
Bangladeshi workers were allowed to migrate to Brunei and other countries without getting their visas attested by labour wings and BMET immigration.
Bangladesh high commissioner in Bandar Seri Begawan Air vice Martial (retd) Mahmud Hossain in a letter to EWOE minister Imran Ahmad requested the latter to take steps to stop the body contract business at the airport.
Since September last year, Malaysia, a popular destination for Bangladeshi migrants, stopped recruiting workers due to result of controlling manpower recruitment by a syndicate of 10-recruiting agencies.
An investigation in Malaysia revealed that each worker paid Ringgit 20,000, equivalent to Tk 4.44 lakh, to their local agents who then paid half of the sum to the syndicate to facilitate approval of work permit and flight ticket to Malaysia, according to media report.
Thousands of Bangladeshi workers in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar found no jobs after migrating there through so-called free visas, which were obtained by the innumerable number of brokers in Bangladesh and destination countries.
A delegation of the EWOE ministry officials found that hundreds of jobless workers from Bangladesh were in Saudi Arabia without getting their work permits.
They were frequently detained by the immigration police and then were deported to home, said officials.
Migration expert and Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program chairman Shakirul Islam told New Age that while amending the Overseas Employment and Migrants Act 2013, the recruiting agencies and the BAIRA must be held responsible in controlling the middlemen.
‘The job is not for the government alone, BAIRA and its all members will have to take responsibility with the government to regulate the middlemen in the recruitment process,’ he said.
Bangladesh is a prominent country of origin of the labour migrant workers and it receives the remittance of $ 15 billion annually.
Inflow of remittance could be substantially increased if Bangladesh could send more skilled workers abroad with overseas jobs, said experts, adding that skilled migration can keep middlemen away and reduce migration cost drastically.
RMMRU research suggests that bringing dalals into the formal fold of recruitment will create a positive image of the government about its effort in streamlining the recruitment system in Bangladesh.
All these will help government improve in the US State Department’s annual rating on Trafficking in Persons.
The government of Bangladesh has established a cell at the Planning Commission to develop a mechanism to ensure various goals of SDG. Target 8.8 of Goal 8 deals with protection of labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precarious employment. Regularisation of dalals will help attain this goal of SDG. The government can demonstrate this as one of the measures undertaken in reducing precarious employment.