Malaysia and Bangladesh: How Migrant Workers Are Blessings for Both

53 Bangladeshi remittance fighters posed in Kuala Lumpur on August 9 wearing off-white T-shirts and hats to represent the camaraderie between Bangladesh and Malaysia and the prospect of a fresh path. The first group of foreign workers arrived in Malaysia as the country’s labor market started accepting applications from Bangladeshi workers again after a nearly four-year hiatus.

A five-year action plan has been adopted by Malaysia for all migrant workers. In addition, the Malaysian government agreed to allow Bangladeshis to apply for jobs in various industries, including construction, mining, domestic services, manufacturing, and plantations. According to the new wage system established by the Malaysian government, they will receive a salary of at least 1,500 Malaysian ringgit (about Tk 37,000) per month. They will also be eligible for all additional benefits, including overtime pay, free housing, health insurance, and workplace accident insurance, in accordance with Malaysian legislation.

In 1984, Bangladesh started sending workers to Malaysia. Between then and 2019, Bangladesh had sent 1.06 million skilled and unskilled laborers to the nation in Southeast Asia. Currently, 60,000–80,000 migrant laborers are anticipated to be sent from Bangladesh to Malaysia in the upcoming four months, according to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET). More than 5 lakh additional Bangladeshi employees are anticipated to be hired in Malaysia over the next three years, which will allow Bangladesh to receive $45 billion in remittances from Malaysia during the following five years. It should be noted that Bangladeshi remitters sent $1.09 billion last year from Malaysia.

The decision to import employees from Bangladesh was made by Malaysia after extensive negotiations with the government of Bangladesh during the labour shortage brought on by the coronavirus outbreak. At the height of the pandemic, Malaysian businesses, from palm oil plantations to semiconductor manufacturers, were turning down orders and foregoing billions in sales because of a labor shortage of more than a million people, which jeopardizes the nation’s ability to recover economically. Millions of foreigners work in factories, plantations, and the service sector in Malaysia, a country that depends heavily on exports and is an important link in the global supply chain. Currently, Malaysia is lacking at least 1.2 million people across all industrial and service sectors, and this shortage is getting worse every day as demand rises as the pandemic eases and the country receives large amounts of export orders.

The Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers, the Malaysia Semiconductor Industry Association, and other organizations in Malaysia claim that Malaysia urgently needs 600,000 workers in manufacturing, 550,000 workers in construction, 120,000 workers in the palm oil industry, 15,000 workers in chip factories, and 12,000 workers in medical glove factories. As fruit rots unpicked, the palm oil industry, which makes up 5% of Malaysia’s GDP, predicts that 3 million tonnes of crop could be lost this year, resulting in losses of more than $4 billion. If the labor scarcity continues, the rubber glove business predicts a $700 million loss in income this year.

The two nations signed a Memorandum of Understanding in December 2021 to expand the market, however there was some controversy and criticism regarding the choice of recruiting agents. Although Bangladesh supplied a list of all agents to Malaysia since Dhaka wants an open and transparent system, the Malaysian government has chosen 25 agencies for worker recruitment. Up until 2009, all agencies were able to ship labor to Malaysia without any restrictions. In order to maximize the possibility of sending workers, the Federation of Malaya has also been urged by the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira), BMET, and the Bangladesh-Malaysia Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BMCCI). This is because syndication by a group of recruiting agencies has been a problem in the past. There are more than one thousand recruiting agencies in Bangladesh– might assist in locating more skilled people throughout the country if they are permitted to bid in recruitment. Now Malaysia can allow all valid recruitment agencies in the hiring process to ensure transparency, to comply with the Bangladesh Competition Act 2012 and the ILO charters on overseas labor recruitment.

Otherwise, a transparent hiring process for recruiting agencies would contribute to the abolition of forced labor and human trafficking, which are frequent complaints made by rights organizations in both countries. Some local rights bodies in Malaysia alleged about the forced labor there. Recently the U.S. Department of State Publishes 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report and stated that Bangladesh, which is in Tier-2, has made Key Progress to Combat Human Trafficking by increasing investigations, prosecutions, and convictions against human traffickers. But unfortunately, Malaysia remains at lowest tier of US human trafficking report although the government had taken some steps to address the issue trafficking, such as amending the anti-trafficking law and the Employment Act to include a wider definition of forced labor. The worldwide issue of human trafficking requires cooperation from nations like Malaysia and Bangladesh.

Another issue that has caused them to be halted, the issues with unauthorized migrant workers, are still not fully handled. About 200,000 Bangladeshis continue to live in Malaysia without proper documentation. The search for unauthorized migrant workers is still ongoing in Malaysia. The kindness of the Malaysian government in announcing previously that migrant workers without legal status would have their work permits renewed is commendable. The new agreement provides legal aid to persons who have worked illegally for a long time so they can become legitimate employees. Hopefully, such initiative will help to keep the skilled and acquainted workers in their own conventional working place of Malaysia.

As a new normal initiative amid global crises, both Malaysia and Bangladesh can make the win-win situation by increasing the import and export of migrant labor respectively. Bangladesh is currently past the Demographic Dividend phase, which includes 65% of the total population. Young people are using Digital Bangladesh’s facilities and services launched by the present Bangladeshi Government. Youth are currently becoming more educated and skilled, which Malaysia can take advantage of to double their manufacturing capacity. Since Bangladesh is one of Malaysia’s main sources of foreign labor, both countries can now improve their own export by hastening the hiring of migrant workers while ensuring the safety and rights of forex earners.

Daisy Roy
Daisy Roy
Daisy Roy is a human rights activist and independent researcher based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.