Malaysia labour market: Four MPs' business booms after joining 'syndicate'

Prothom Alo is publishing a series of reports on the Malaysian labour market. This is Part 1 of the series.

In December 2018, the elected Awami League member of parliament from Feni, Nizam Uddin Hazari, got a licence to send workers overseas. His company's name is Snigdha International.

In the three and a half years after the licence was issued, they sent only 100 workers overseas. But after they joined the 'Malaysia syndicate', around 8000 workers have been sent in the past one and a half years in the name of Nizam Hazari's agency. Snigdha Overseas ranks fourth highest among agencies sending the most workers to Malaysia.

The Malaysia syndicate includes recruiting agencies of two more members of parliament and two family members of an MP. These companies are 5M International of Feni-3 member of parliament Lt. Col. Masud Uddin Chowdhury (retd), Ahmed International of Dhaka-20 member of parliament Benjir Ahmed, Orbitals Enterprise of Kashmeri Kamal, wife of former finance minister and present member of parliament AHM Mustafa Kamal, and Orbitals International of Nafisa Kamal, AHM Mustafa Kamal's daughter. Mustafa Kamal established Orbitals Enterprise in 1979.

The Malaysia syndicate does not allow all recruiting agencies of the country to send workers to Malaysia. Only a handful of agencies get this business. There were 25 agencies in the syndicate to start, later this increased to 100 in three phases. The top bosses of the syndicate allegedly take hefty sums of money from agencies to get their name in the syndicate. And the agencies in the syndicate sit and get at least Tk 150,000 per worker as "syndicate fees". A part of this money goes to those controlling the Malaysian syndicate.

There are 14 countries including Bangladesh that send workers to Malaysia. However, other than Bangladesh, none of the countries have any such syndicate.

After being closed for around four years, when Malaysia's labour market reopened in July 2022, Malaysia got the responsibility to select recruiting agencies. The ministry for expatriate welfare and overseas employment sent a list of 1,520 recruiting agencies to Malaysia. Only 25 were selected. There were no guidelines for selection. There are allegations of exerting influence and bribery in the process.

UN experts said a large number of Bangladeshi workers in Malaysia are living in unsustainable, inhuman and undignified conditions. The workers are being duped into paying huge sums of money with false promises of employment. Certain high level officials of the Bangladesh and Malaysian government are involved with the syndicate

It is now seen that along with the agencies of the three MPs and of the family members of one of the MPs, there are also Awami League leaders, city corporation councillors and many new companies in the sector sending large numbers of workers to Malaysia. Many companies which had stood up against the syndicate have also joined the syndicate now. Yet many old companies have not been given space.               

Meanwhile, many workers are not finding jobs once they arrive in Malaysia. Many of them take loans to go, but return home empty handed.

On 19 April this year the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) posted a statement on its website regarding the predicament of Bangladeshi workers in Malaysia. In the statement, UN experts said a large number of Bangladeshi workers in Malaysia are living in unsustainable, inhuman and undignified conditions. The workers are being duped into paying huge sums of money with false promises of employment. Certain high level officials of the Bangladesh and Malaysian government are involved with the syndicate. This is unacceptable.

Under the circumstances, Malaysia has suspended taking in foreign workers for the time being. Those who have already received Malaysian visas and approval, must enter Malaysia by tomorrow, Friday.

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MPs' companies

The Bangladesh Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) over the past one and a half years issues around 450,000 clearance certificates for workers to go to Malaysia. According to the list availed from concerned sources, 5M International tops the list of companies sending workers to Malaysia. BAIRA website names members of parliament Lt. Gen. Masud Uddin Chowdhury (retd) as its managing director.

5M International was established in 2015. According to BMET, the company sent around 2,500 workers to the Middle East after it was established. But after joining the Malaysia syndicate, it was alone taken clearance for 8,592 workers.

Masud Uddin Chowdhury first became MP with a Jatiya Party ticket from Feni-3 in the 2018 election. He had first bought the nomination papers for Awami League. It is said that he later contested from Jatiya Party at the advice of Awami League.

Ahmed International, the company of member of parliament of Dhaka-20, Benjir Ahmed, ranks fifth on the list of agencies sending workers to Malaysia. They hardly had any work before the Malaysian labour market opened up. They had sent only 238 workers overseas. But they scaled to the top once they joined the Malaysia syndicate. So far 7,849 workers have gone to Malaysia through this agency. Benjir Ahmed had been the president of the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (BAIRA) at the time that the syndicate was formed.

A total of 9,861 workers have gone to Malaysia through Orbitals Enterprise of former finance minister AHM Mustafa Kamal's wife Kashmeri Kamal and Orbitals International, of his daughter Nafisa Kamal. AHM Mustafa Kamal had been finance minister at the time of the syndicate being formed.

Attempts were made to contact the three MPs and the family members of one of the MPs regarding the Malaysia syndicate. They did not respond. A call was made to the Snigdha Overseas number found on the BAIRA website. The company's executive director Shahela Parveen replied. She told Prothom Alo, various agencies sent workers though them. But, she said, they did not take any more than fixed by the government.

However, the owners of three agencies which are not part of the syndicate, told Prothom Alo that after receiving demands for workers, they paid fees to the syndicate and sent workers to Malaysia in their name. They had to pay agencies in the syndicate from Tk 152,000 to Tk 165,000 per worker.

Second on the list of agencies sending workers to Malaysia is Oichi International and third is New Age International. Sources say that these two firms are active members of the syndicate.

Joining the syndicate after opposing

BAIRA members contend that now the former BAIRA secretary general Ruhul Amin alias Shawpon is building the syndicate from a leadership position. He has fixed the names of 69 agencies of the 100 in the syndicate. It is through him that financial transactions are carried out in Malaysia. According to BMET records, 7,102 workers have gone to Malaysia through Shawpon 's agency Catharsis International. Attempts were made to contact Ruhul Amin for his comments, but he did not respond.

Launching a movement against the syndicate sending workers to Malaysia, the panel supported by Mohammad Noor Ali and Mohammad Abul Bashar won the 2022 BAIRA election. The present president of the association Mohammad Abul Bashar's agency is not a part of the syndicate. However, his son Ishtiaque Ahmed's agency BNS Overseas Ltd and his son-in-law Golam Rakib's new agency PR Overseas have joined the syndicate.

PR Overseas got a licence in October 2021. They have sent over 4000 workers abroad.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, the BAIRA president Abul Bashar said that the syndicate entered the name of his son and son-in-law's agencies on the list in exchange of money in order to tarnish his reputation. Had those who initially opposed the syndicate not joined the syndicate later, then the opportunity to send workers to Malaysia this time would have remained open to all.

Abul Bashar's son Ishtiaque Ahmed told Prothom Alo that there was no payment made to join the syndicate. Abul Bashar's son-in-law Golam Rakib said he knew nothing about paying money, then he cut the phone call.

Meanwhile, Shameem Ahmed Chowdhury was elected BAIRA secretary general in the last election of the organisation. He later resigned. Before resignation, his agency Sadia International joined the syndicate.

Booming business after joining syndicate

With no prior experience in sending workers to Malaysia, BM Travels Ltd, belonging to Dhaka North City ward 39 (Bhatara) councillor Md Shafiqul Islam, has shot to the top of the list of agencies sending workers to Malaysia. His agency has collected 7,225 clearance certificates.

Several members of BAIRA say that councillor Shafiqul has good relations with Ruhul Amin who led in creating the syndicate. Calls were made to him by mobile phone, but he was unavailable.

Dhaka City South Awami League joint general secretary Mohiuddin Ahmed got a recruiting agency licence in July 2022 and joined the syndicate. His company Anonno Apurba Recruiting Agency collected clearance for 2,600 workers. Speaking over mobile phone on 4 May to Prothom Alo, he said that he would speak face to face about it. Later when he was called repeatedly over phone for an appointment, he did not reply.

A number of new companies have entered the Malaysia syndicate and have sent large numbers of workers to Malaysia. Imperial Overseas got its recruiting agency licence in March 2021. Till July 2022 it sent 344 workers overseas, but after joining the syndicate, it sent over 7000 workers to Malaysia.

Two agencies confirmed to Prothom Alo that they paid the syndicate and sent workers through Imperial. The firm's managing director Mohammad Mahbubur Rahman was contacted over phone. After listening, he said he would speak about the matter an hour later. However, he did not answer the phone after that.

20 billion taka business

The expenditure fixed by the government to send workers to Malaysia is Tk 79,000 per head. In actuality, a much higher sum is charged.

Five organisations including the US-based NGO Veritas Incorporated ran a survey from May to mid-October 2023, interviewing 357 expatriates in Malaysia. The survey report said that on average a Bangladesh worker spends Tk 544,000 to go to Malaysia. And 96 per cent of the workers have to take loans from at least one source.

Md Selim of Narayanganj went to Malaysia in March last year. He did not get the job he was promised there. He was given piling work as a construction worker. He later received head injuries, but the company did not provide him any medical treatment. After suffering for around one and a half months, he was obliged to arrange a ticket with his own money and return home in September last year.

There were apprehensions from before that the workers would face this precarious situation. Various offices of the government were aware of this too. They should not have agreed to sending workers through the syndicate
Tasneem Siddiqui, founder chair, RMMRU

Selim said, "I sold my auto-rickshaw, my wife's ornaments and took loans to go to Malaysia. I am broke now, inundated in debt."

The concerned persons say that business of Tk 240 billion was generated by sending around 400,000 people in the last one and a half years. Around Tk 200 billion extra was taken, above the fee fixed by the government. The syndicate took Tk 150,000 per person, totalling over Tk 65 billion.

When asked about the matter, state minister for expatriate welfare and overseas employment Shafiqur Rahman Chowdhury on 11 May told Prothom Alo, Malaysia fixed a list of specific agencies to send workers to Malaysia. Inquiries are being made into the allegations concerning sending workers overseas. Action will be taken against those proven to be guilty.

Though repeated allegations had been made about the syndicate being formed and excessive fees being collected, the ministry took no measures in this regard. In fact, even in 2022 if allowed a syndicate to be formed.

Unemployed in Malaysia

Many workers end up unemployed in Malaysia. The government acknowledges that. According to the expatriate welfare ministry, 5000 of the workers who went to Malaysia did not get employment. Steps are being taken to arrange jobs for them.

However, from Bangladeshis who have long been in Malaysia, it has been learnt that thousands and thousands of workers are unemployed. Some vend goods on the roadside to earn enough to survive. Some buy umbrellas and sell these on the streets when it rains. Some do odds jobs for a meagre earning.

Meanwhile, from January to 24 March this year, 453 workers returned from Malaysia empty handed. They didn't even have their passports. They came back on travels passes.

Tasneem Siddiqui, founder chair of RMMRU, the non-government research institution for the migration sector, told Prothom Alo that there were apprehensions from before that the workers would face this precarious situation. Various offices of the government were aware of this too. They should not have agreed to sending workers through the syndicate.

*This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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