Malaysia is edging toward a new deal with Bangladesh to lift a ban imposed on migrant workers from Bangladesh more than a year ago over concerns that recruitment agencies were driving them into forced labor.
Rights advocates are hopeful but wary that the deal being negotiated will break up the "syndicate" they accuse of monopolizing the labor pipeline at the migrant workers' expense.
Malaysia stopped allowing Bangladeshi migrant workers into the country in September 2018 amid mounting news reports that only 10 recruitment agencies from among hundreds in Bangladesh were being allowed to send workers to Malaysia. They were being accused of driving up the costs of landing a job to $5,000, forcing the workers to take on crippling debts that all but enslaved them to their recruiters or employers.
A joint statement issued by both countries on Nov. 6 said they expected to amend a 2016 memorandum of understanding that established the labor pipeline by the end of the month.
But Amir bin Omar, secretary general of Malaysia's Human Resources Ministry, said tentative plans to sign a deal on Tuesday, and for another joint meeting on Sunday to set a date to lift the ban, would likely be postponed because the details had yet to be settled.
Omar said the ministry has also decided that it wants the full Malaysian Cabinet to approve the deal before the two countries meet, rather than after, but still expects that it will be signed by early December.
"They've almost agreed, almost 90 percent. It's just a little bit [left]. Better to get approval from the Cabinet; I don't know when. We will try to do it as soon as possible," Omar said.
"We are talking about who has to [pay], the employer or the employee, how much; that is the thing we need to discuss in detail," he added.
Omar said migrant workers would very likely still have to cover some of the costs, such as their travel. But he added that Malaysia was intent on taking most of the financial burden off their backs and to open up the recruitment process to more agencies.
"We want to leave it open to the market, but that is subject to our discussions with Bangladesh," he said.
Bangladesh's minister of expatriates' welfare and overseas employment, Imran Ahmad, declined to speak with VOA over the phone and did not reply to requests for comment by email.
Bangladesh's economy relies on remittances from its migrant workers as much as Malaysia's depends on migrant workers from Bangladesh and elsewhere to fill its factories and plantations.
Malaysia officially claims to host 1.7 million migrant workers, but the International Labor Organization says the true figure, including many here illegally, may reach 4 million — nearly a third of the country's workforce. Bangladeshis make up anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 of them.
Andy Hall, a migrant worker rights specialist based in Asia, said Malaysia and Bangladesh were both under pressure to strike a better deal for the workers.
The United States banned imports from Malaysian rubber gloves maker WRP Asia Pacific in October over suspicion that its factories were using forced labor, and Hall said other factories in the country were at risk of similar sanctions. Bangladesh was placed on the Tier 2 Watch List in the U.S. State Department's latest Trafficking in Persons Report for the third year running, one step above Tier 3, where it could come under trade sanctions itself.
"So they're quite tense," Hall said. "It's clear that, I think, it's going to be a lot better than in the past because everyone's focusing on this now after the last scandal, when workers were ... having to pay up to $5,000 each."
Joseph Maliamauv, co-director of Malaysian rights group Tenaganita, hopes the new deal will benefit Bangladesh's migrant workers but is skeptical.
"Migration is seen as big business; this commodification of migrants and migration. So there is a lot of money to be made there, and it's going to take a lot of effort to get people to not take advantage of that," he said.
"I hope that the costs can be reduced, but I will not be holding my breath until I see the results...Because I don't see very much changes in anything else in regard to migration, the way immigration is being handled."
Tenaganita said it would prefer to see the Malaysian government wrest back control of the migrant labor pipeline from the private sector but that the same companies it outsourced the process to remain in charge, leaving the migrants at risk of profit-driven fleecing.
In 2018, Nepal barred its nationals from going to Malaysia to work after accusing the Malaysian companies contracted by their government to process the applications of charging extortionate fees.
Hall said Nepalis started arriving in Malaysia again in September under a new deal in which the costs were placed on employers. But he said some of the new arrivals he has met in Malaysia claim that they are paying many of the same old fees under the table.
It may be too early to say whether their deal will end up working as intended, Hall said, "but the indications are that there are major challenges in enforcing it and...that the kickbacks culture, the corruption that has gone on for so long is still there. It hasn't gone anywhere."