Malaysia has launched an investigation to uncover how hundreds of migrant workers arrived from South Asia without jobs, despite having paid steep fees to get employment, officials and rights groups said.
The issue revives concerns over labour abuses in Malaysia, a key manufacturing hub at the heart of the global supply chain that has faced several accusations in recent years over exploitation of workers.
Hundreds of workers from Bangladesh and Nepal have arrived since December after paying up to RM20,000 (US$4,500) to middlemen to get employment, officials of two rights groups who interviewed dozens of the workers told Reuters.
Many took loans to pay recruitment fees, but are unable to start repaying them without jobs or salaries, the activists said, adding that on arrival, their passports had been taken away by recruitment agents.
"These workers are at high risk of forced labour and severe destitution," said independent labour activist Andy Hall, whose team has been in contact with the migrant workers.
Their plight was worsened by factors such as debt bondage, poor living conditions, isolation and limited freedom of movement after their passports were confiscated, he added.
The International Labour Organisation ranks deception, along with debt bondage stemming from the large recruitment fee, and passport seizure among its indicators of "forced labour".
The government is investigating the matter, said Asri Rahman, the director-general of its labour department, but declined to provide details until completion of the inquiry.
Last week, V Sivakumar, the minister for human resources, visited a group of 226 Bangladeshi and Nepali workers who had been in the Southeast Asian country for 40 days without the jobs they had been promised.
He described as "appalling" the crowded accommodation of the workers, and vowed to find them jobs at the earliest, but did not identify the provider of the facilities.
The investigation comes as the five-month-old government of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim cracks down on corruption and looks to tackle labour abuse.
Two of Sivakumar's aides were arrested by anti-graft authorities this month over an investigation into recruitment of foreign workers. He too was questioned, and has promised to cooperate.
Malaysia has faced accusations of forced labour in manufacturing and palm oil production over the years, including some by the US, which banned imports from several of its firms for such practices.
Bangladesh – a key source of migrants for Malaysia – called for more transparency by Kuala Lumpur to prevent its citizens from being cheated of jobs.
"If the Malaysian government's approval process for hiring foreign workers is transparent, not a single worker should be unemployed," its high commission, or embassy, in Malaysia said in a Facebook post on Saturday.
The high commission said it compelled an employer to provide jobs for some of the migrants, while still working to get jobs for the others.
A Bangladeshi official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters there were a "few hundred" of its citizens stuck in Malaysia without jobs.
The Nepal embassy said it was working to find employment for a group of 125 of its citizens who had been left similarly stranded, and had also received such complaints from others.