Malaysia to Recruit Bangladeshi Workers 3 Years after Suspending Hirings

Ray Sherman and Nisha David
2021.12.19
Kuala Lumpur
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Malaysia to Recruit Bangladeshi Workers 3 Years after Suspending Hirings Imran Ahmed, Bangladesh Expatriates’ Welfare & Overseas Employment minister (left), shakes hands with M. Saravanan, Malaysia Human Resources minister, after signing a memorandum of understanding in Kuala Lumpur, Dec.19, 2021.
Courtesy Malaysia Human Resources Ministry

Updated at 12:15 p.m. ET on 2021-12-19

Malaysia on Sunday signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Bangladesh to recruit workers to overcome a labor shortage in the country after similar efforts were suspended in 2018.

The memorandum was signed here by M. Saravanan, Malaysia’s Human Resources minister, and Imran Ahmed, Bangladesh’s Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment minister, but was not made public, which worried a migrant rights activist.

“The new MoU will be effective for five years until December 2026,” Saravanan said in a statement. “This MoU, among others, outlines the responsibilities of the Malaysian and Bangladeshi governments, as well as employees and employers and employment agents from both countries.”

Saravanan said the MoU would be overseen by a joint working group from both countries.

On Dec. 10, the Malaysian cabinet decided to reopen the recruitment of Bangladeshi workers in several sectors including plantation, production, agriculture, mining, construction and domestic service, among others.

“The signing of the MoU is expected to meet the urgent need for foreign employment, including in the plantation sector, which has been approved by the cabinet for 32,000 workers as a special exception,” Saravanan said. “This is because there are restrictions on the admission of Indonesian workers for the plantation sector until an agreement regarding Indonesian domestic workers is signed.”

Shahidul Alam, director general of the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training, attended the signing as a member of the Bangladesh delegation in Malaysia. He said the MoU was a welcome change.

“The door that remained shut for so long has opened through the signing of this MoU for a period of five years. This is such wonderful news for both the countries,” he told a BenarNews reporter in Dhaka during a phone call from Kuala Lumpur.

Saravanan noted that as of Nov. 30, a total of 326,669 documented Bangladeshi workers were in the country, with the majority employed in the construction sector (136,897), followed by the manufacturing sector (111,694).

No media were present for the signing of the MoU and the Malaysian Human Resources communications officer did not respond to a BenarNews request for comment.

Malaysia suspended the recruitment of Bangladeshi workers in 2018 over allegations of malpractice in the recruitment process including high costs faced by immigrant workers to get jobs.

M. Kulasegaran, who served as Human Resources minister, had said in June 2018 that groups were taking advantage of Bangladeshi workers, according to Malaysia’s English daily The Star.

“This suspension will last until a full investigation has been completed into allegations that a syndicate was operating it as a human trafficking scheme to exploit these workers,” he said at the time.

Andy Hall, an independent migrant worker rights activist, lamented the lack of MoU details provided to the media.

“Absent so far from today’s activities and related public press statements are details about what was actually agreed upon in the MoU negotiations between the two ministers and the actual contents of the finalized MoU and its related protocols,” Hall told BenarNews.

“This total lack of transparency so far gives the real and present fears of a return to illicit and syndicated recruitment activities that could easily lead to systemic debt bondage and forced labor of Bangladeshi workers newly brought into Malaysia under the new deal.”

In July, Malaysia fell to Tier 3, the lowest level, on the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report based on forced labor concerns.

Housing concerns

Saravanan reminded employers they are required to provide housing for workers, as stipulated in the Workers’ Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act 1990 (Act 446).

“This is intended to address elements of forced labor associated with accommodation facilities or employee housing,” he said.

Meanwhile, a set of standard operating procedures in four phases, namely pre-departure, upon arrival, quarantine period and post-quarantine, must be met, according to Saravanan.

The pre-departure phase includes complete vaccination against COVID-19 in the source country and testing to be carried out two days prior to departure. The arrival phase requires Bangladesh workers to enter Malaysia through the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

“After arrival, foreign workers will be placed in quarantine centers in the Klang Valley for seven days, during which screening tests will be conducted on the second and fifth days of the quarantine period,” he said.

“In the post-quarantine phase, foreign workers will be brought to their respective workplaces and will undergo a health inspection,” Saravanan said.

In 2020, Kulasegaran said Malaysia proposed a zero-cost recruitment agreement for migrant workers from Bangladesh. Employers were to bear recruitment service charges as well as two-way airfare, visa fees, health check-ups and security screenings for foreign workers.

Bangladesh’s Alam noted that the MoU signed Sunday covered issues important to Bangladeshis, including transportation being covered by employers.

“As a result, the cost of migration will significantly decline,” he said.

Shariful Hasan, head of the migration program at BRAC, an international non-governmental organization, said Bangladeshis were interested in the Malaysian labor market because of the similarities in the areas of nature, culture and food. 

“The two countries have agreed to open the market after almost three years. It’s a positive sign and promising aspect,” Hasan told BenarNews.

 ‘So much is at stake’

Hall urged both nations to make public the agreement’s details.

“[This is because] so much is at stake, and so many doubts and so much distrust about the integrity of the process remain,” he said.

Alex Ong, coordinator for human rights group Migrant Care, questioned the MoU and said it could have a negative effect on a similar plan being developed with Indonesia.

“This MoU is an indication of Malaysia’s very low transformative political will in achieving higher labor standards,” Ong told BenarNews, adding that his group fears increased labor abuses and irregular migration trends.

Jesmin Papri in Dhaka contributed to this report.

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