The Malaysian labour market still remains inaccessible for Bangladeshi workers thanks to the issue of whether Bangladeshi workers will only be recruited by a syndicate of 25 agencies.
The standoff, allegedly prompted by recruiting syndicates, has been persisting for around four months since Dhaka and Kuala Lumpur inked a manpower deal.
Subsequently, Malaysia said it will only allow manpower import from Bangladesh by 25 Bangladeshi agents selected by the Malaysian authorities. But Dhaka opposed the step, and instead wanted all recruiters to be allowed to send workers to Malaysia.
Malaysia's door to Bangladesh workers has been closed since 2018, following syndicated manpower export by 10 Bangladeshi agencies since 2015. Local recruiters claim the same group is now active lobbying both at home and abroad so that Dhaka eventually agrees with Kuala Lumpur's proposal.
"I feel that the Malaysian labour market should be open for all recruiters," said Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment Minister Imran Ahmad. He said negotiations on the matter are ongoing.
"We will be able to do certain things that would not be in my interest, but in the country's interest," he added.
Shamim Ahmed Chowdhury Noman, former secretary general of the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira), said the minister's statement can have two meanings: he will either allow the syndicate or write to the Malaysian authorities again for discussion.
Noman said Malaysia has not yet responded to multiple letters from Bangladesh.
The expatriates' welfare minister also proposed a meeting of the joint working group of the two countries. But the meeting has not been finalised yet.
Andy Hall, a Malaysia-based migrant rights advocate, told The Business Standard that the Bangladesh government should stand firm against any attempts to allow syndicated manpower recruitment.
"Recruitment of Bangladeshi workers to Malaysia should be in accordance with developing ethical recruitment standards and any recruitment agencies registered and meeting the required standards should have an equal, fair and open opportunity to be involved in this recruitment corridor," he added.
Why syndicated recruitment a major concern
Manpower recruiters term the proposal of allowing only 25 out of Bangladesh's 1,500 recruiting agencies a "syndication".
Most of the recruiters want equal business opportunities. They will meet the ministries concerned to convey their concern, according to Tipu Sultan, convener of Syndicate Nirmul Oikko Parishad.
"We have been told that the prime minister did not give her consent yet on the 25 agencies issue," he added.
Tipu Sultan said under the new deal, Malaysian employers will bear all costs of Bangladeshi workers, which means there will be almost zero cost of migration. But if syndicates are allowed, as they were in 2015, the cost may go up three to four times.
He said the 25 agencies are yet to be specified by the Malaysian authorities, but some recruitment firms are ready to pay even Tk1 crore each for getting enlisted.
"If there is no undue gain, then why would they pay the hefty amount," he raised the question.
Recruiting agencies allege the syndicate comprises a few Bangladeshi agencies, an influential part of the Malaysian Ministry of Human Resources and some expatriate Bangladeshis.
In 2015, Malaysia hired 2.75 lakh workers through only ten recruiting agencies of Bangladesh under the "G2G [government to government] Plus" system.
Migration cost was estimated at Tk37,000 initially, but later rose to Tk1.60 lakh. Subsequently it rose to Tk3-4 lakh. Malaysia cancelled it in 2018, raising allegations of corruption relating to at least Tk5,000 crore through the system.
Syndication only for Bangladesh
Malaysia has 14 manpower sourcing countries, including Bangladesh. But the country's condition for "foreign labour import through limited agencies" applies only in Bangladesh's case, according to local recruiters.
Shamim Ahmed Chowdhury Noman said allowing all registered recruiters to send manpower would ultimately offer a competitive migration rate to workers.
Malaysia stopped hiring Bangladeshi workers in 2009 allegedly on the issue of irregularities. After three years of negotiations, an agreement was reached for sending workers on a G2G (government to government) basis. As it was not successful, the tendency to go to Malaysia illegally has been increasing.
Many illegal migrants have lost their lives en route to Malaysia. Then came the G2G Plus to recruit 2.75 lakh workers through only ten agencies.
According to an unofficial estimate, Malaysia is home to around 8 lakh Bangladeshis. The Bangladeshi workers remitted more than $1,098 million home last year.
Money transfers by Bangladeshi migrants in Malaysia fell by more than 51% in the first nine months of the current fiscal year.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Malaysia and Singapore sent many Bangladeshi workers home. These workers could not return to Malaysia later.