KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 8 — Several hundred Bangladeshis left stranded in Pengerang, Johor, in the case that renewed calls to clamp down migrant recruitment fraud have settled for far less than the RM2 million in unpaid wages they had sought.
The arrears, to be calculated from October 7, was one of two settlements reached at a mediation with their recruiters and overseen by the Industrial Court in Johor on Monday after months of trying to hold recruiters accountable, giving the workers some relief from the prolonged anguish of being left jobless and unable to buy food or seek shelter.
But activists who work closely with the workers felt they came out of the negotiations shortchanged, and that the concessions were more favourable to the recruitment company despite the allegations of fraud. This would send a bad signal that could encourage instead of deter recruitment syndicates from an industry that human rights groups said is comparable to human trafficking, they said.
The recruitment company was directed to pay roughly RM1 million in backdated salaries to 733 workers, an average of just RM1,364 per worker or some RM450 a month (October to December), based on the negotiation papers sighted the Malay Mail, with no other compensation offered for their predicament.
“This is supposed to be about social justice. This is social justice for the perpetrators,” said Abdul Aziz Ismail, a migrant worker rights consultant who has worked with outfits like North-South Initiative and Tenaganita.
“This high profile Pengerang abuse case required a deterrent kind of settlement within the justice and law enforcement systems to show the government and judiciary took seriously its duty to crack down on this organised crime syndicate that is trafficking Bangladeshi victims into Malaysia,” said Andy Hall, an independent migrant worker rights activist.
“This result is not the strong punishment against the perpetrators that was committed by the ministers in the latest joint press conference,” Hall added.
The Labour Department could not be reached for comment.
Home Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Saifuddin Nasution Ismail and Human Resources Minister Steven Sim have vowed to step up reforms of the government’s foreign worker intake system, promising at their first press conference together stronger inter-ministry cooperation and to speed up “improvements in management and coordination” to streamline the application process and prevent abuse
Sim and Saifuddin also pledged stern action against recruitment syndicates but stopped short of delivering a thorough plan on how to fix a system that lets these syndicates persist. Activists alleged the people behind some of the country’s largest recruitment syndicates enjoy political protection, which makes thwarting them harder.
The government said it had blacklisted the company responsible for abandoning several hundred Bangladeshi workers in Pengerang. Sim suggested the government could also use anti-trafficking laws against fraudulent companies, which carry harsher punishments.
In January, 750 Bangladeshi workers sought to claim RM2.1 million of unpaid wages at the Industrial Court. Twenty-four workers participated in the mediation yesterday but without legal representation. Abdul Aziz said because most of them could barely speak English or Bahasa Malaysia, the recruiters were able to steer the negotiations in their favour.
“They represented themselves. Because they can’t speak Bahasa or English I think it made the negotiations difficult for them, so they just wanted to settle quick,” he said.
The recruitment firm was instructed to pay the backdated salaries by March 21. The company was also directed to secure jobs for all 700 Bangladeshi nationals by February 10.
Sim’s office could not be reached for comments.
The case, initially reported to involve 171 Bangladeshis, generated significant public interest and spurred more support for migrant worker protection. Many Malaysians were sympathetic following reports that the migrants had been arrested by the Batu Pahat police as they made their way to file a complaint against their recruiters.
The Anwar administration has vowed to tighten regulation around migrant worker recruitment as part of a broader governance reform, but has so far remained silent about regulating recruitment levy and fees, which can go up to RM25,000 per person.
Malaysia’s treatment of its migrant workers has come under strong scrutiny over the years. The US was among the few countries that have restricted Malaysian exports for suspected forced labour. Migrant workers in Malaysia are usually denied the same labour law protections as local workers, including basic rights like a minimum of one off day per week.
Malaysia was also a Tier 3 country in the US Department of State’s Human Trafficking Report up until 2022, a grouping of governments that fail to meet the minimum standards to tackle trafficking.
It was only promoted to a Tier 2 watch list last year. Tier 2 countries still fail to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making “significant efforts.”