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Foreign workers looking for jobs end up trapped in middlemen debt instead

Many of them spend years paying off their debts, even if it means overstaying their permits.

Nur Hasliza Mohd Salleh
3 minute read
A worker tends to orange trees at an orchard in Sungai Buloh, Selangor.
A worker tends to orange trees at an orchard in Sungai Buloh, Selangor.

For 13 years now, Kadeer has worked on a vegetable farm in Cameron Highlands, Pahang.

Early this year, his oldest son Kazi followed in his footsteps and made the journey to Malaysia to work as well. 

For father and son, the dream is simple: to help their family in Bangladesh live a better life and, hopefully, attain more education as well. 

But their efforts to send money back home are hampered by the debts they owe to the middlemen who arranged their affairs in Malaysia. 

Every month, Kadeer subtracts some RM200 from his salary to help his son pay off his debt of RM15,000.

The amount that workers like Kadeer and Kazi owe to middlemen depends on the package they choose. 

"A more expensive package would land me a good job like a waiter at a restaurant in a shopping centre, or a cashier," Kazi told MalaysiaNow. 

"A lower package on the other hand would involve heavy work as a labourer."

Kazi paid for the expensive package but, upon his arrival in Malaysia, was told that there were no "good" jobs available. 

He was later assured that he would be sent to the capital city where he could begin working. 

But after more than two months of waiting in a shared house in Puchong, Selangor, he decided to take matters into his own hands and leave. 

"I told them I wanted to go work with my father, and they said I would cause losses for them as an agreement had already been made with an employer. 

"But they didn't tell me who the employer was or when I could start work."

As a result, Kazi was told to pay the middlemen extra "damage" charges of RM5,000 which he would have to cough up in less than three years' time. 

When contacted by MalaysiaNow, Kazi and Kadeer's employer said he had been disappointed to learn that three of his four workers were trapped in debt due to irresponsible parties. 

"I don't even know if those middlemen are really agents or if they are only scammers," added the employer who introduced himself as Hock. 

"All of my workers transfer money every month to a bank account in the name of a person, not a company.

"Only Kadeer was not swindled, but he has been here for a long time now," Hock said. 

Most of the work on Hock's farm is managed by locals, with the fruits and vegetables sold at the nearby night market. 

The foreign workers, meanwhile, are tasked with caring for the plants as well as the harvest work, for which they are paid on an hourly and daily basis. 

"I have tried to find out who these middlemen are through my business contacts, but there are too many of them," Hock said. 

"They are very hard to track down." 

Hock's advice is for employers to conduct thorough background checks on prospective workers before taking them on, to make sure that they have not been cheated by middlemen. 

"But even this is out of our control," he added. "Payments to such agents are made in Bangladesh, before the workers even come to Malaysia." 

MalaysiaNow understands that Bangladeshi men recruited to work in the construction sector typically incur a debt equal to their annual income, inclusive of maximum overtime. 

It usually takes these workers some 18 months to pay off their debt. 

The amount does not include recruitment fees, which are an additional burden on foreign workers who often leave home in order to support their families. 

Adrian Pereira, the executive director of the North-South Initiative, said according to the International Organization of Labor or ILO, workers should not pay money to agents. Instead, he said, payments should be made by employers looking for workers. 

But due to policy weaknesses and a lack of monitoring by the authorities, many foreign workers become tied to debt for a period of years. 

"So it's nothing out of the ordinary for foreign workers to be badly beaten and cheated and yet refuse to return to their home countries," Pereira said. 

"They are tied to their debt. They cannot go back."

And eventually, they lose their documentation because they have overstayed. 

Human Resources Minister M Saravanan previously reminded employers looking to employ foreign workers not to make payments through middlemen or third parties, to avoid being cheated. 

Employers who use the services of private employment agencies must also ensure that the agency is registered and has a licence certified by the Department of Labour under the Private Employment Agencies Act 1981.