DHAKA/KATHMANDU (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Thousands of Bangladeshi and Nepali migrant workers each year are paying unlicensed labour brokers - some linked to organised crime groups - large sums of money for travel documents and employment papers on the false promise of lucrative jobs in the Gulf, Africa and Malaysia.
Documents are forged, they find no job exists, some migrants are arrested by border officials for carrying fraudulent papers, while others are trafficked to countries other than where they agreed to work.
Their families, meanwhile, have been fleeced. Mostly from rural areas, they were lured into selling their land or borrowing money from unauthorised middlemen on expectations of foreign jobs for their children.
An investigation by reporters from the International Center for Journalists revealed a pattern of hopes dashed, deception and desperation in the global search for work. Fraudulent recruiters and middlemen exploited the aspirations of young people seeking an opportunity to better their lives and help their families.
“It is greed that has become entirely normalised in the labour brokerage systems,” said Andrew Gardner, associate professor of anthropology specialising in migrant labour at the University of Puget Sound in Washington state.
“It is in the lowest echelon of countries, the economically disheveled and impoverished states, that you will see the most extreme cases of labour abuse.”
About 87 million people leave their home countries for work each year, and about 15 percent lack official documentation, according to the International Labour Organization. Migrant labour provides crucial sources of income for impoverished countries, but when left unregulated, workers end up heavily indebted and in abusive conditions.
Or, like 21-year-old Ramzan Miah, they become victims of human trafficking.
Ramzan - who lives near Dhaka in Narsingdi district of Bangladesh, the world’s sixth largest source of migrant labour - paid local broker Mizanur Rahman $7,700 for a job in South Africa.
“We sold our land, cattle and even vehicles just to arrange money for the desired job,” he said.
Instead of South Africa, he and nine other Bangladeshis found themselves on August 15, 2011, on a flight bound for Tanzania. When they arrived, a Pakistani took Ramzan’s passport, the $1,000 cash he had brought and bundled the migrant workers into a cargo container headed for the Tanzania-Mozambique border.
“It was terrible,” he said. “We passed through forest and ate grass and corn to survive before we crossed into Mozambique.”
A few days later police arrested the Bangladeshis, handed them to Tanzanian immigration officials, and in November sent them to jail until Bangladesh embassy officials arranged their deportation. The labour brokers, meanwhile, demanded that some of their families pay an additional $3,800 or more to cover costs while they were in jail.
The men filed complaints with the airport police against 16 middlemen under the human trafficking law. Police investigators said the labour brokers were working with local and international organised crime groups. One man, Helal Uddin, has been arrested and is out on bail while the two-year investigation continues.
“I am waiting for justice,” Ramzan said.
About 482 similar cases have been filed under Bangladesh’s 2012 human trafficking law, but none has resulted in conviction, according to police statistics.
About 40 percent of Bangladesh’s workforce is underemployed, according to the World Bank, and gross national income per capita is $840 a year, making it one of the poorest countries in the world.
About 8 million Bangladeshis work abroad, mostly in the Gulf States and Malaysia, according to government data, and they sent home $14 billion in earnings in 2012, an important source of income in a country where the poverty rate is more than 31 percent.
But the false promise of riches overseas makes young people and their families - often from rural areas - vulnerable to unscrupulous and unlicensed recruiters, human rights groups and labour experts said.
The Centre for Policy Dialogue, a Bangladesh think tank, estimates that more than 50,000 unregulated middlemen are active in Bangladesh, far outnumbering the 1,000 licensed brokers who belong to the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies. These official agencies, too, have faced widespread criticism, prompting the Bangladesh government in 2011 to investigate their activities.
Gardner, who has studied migrant labour in Gulf countries, said the fault lies less with the end employers and largely with their contractors and recruiters.
“It is a sub-manager way down the line who is responsible for abuse,” he said.
Countries that successfully enforce labour regulations, such as the Philippines, have managed to control the worst abuses, and as a result Filipino migrants pay lower placement fees and earn higher wages, he said.
However, countries that have weak governance or are newer to the international labour market - like Bangladesh, Nepal and Vietnam - are struggling to cope.
In 2012, Bangladesh’s Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) received 460 complaints mostly of fraud: 212 cases were settled, and workers received 19.6 million taka ($248,137) in compensation from documented recruiters.
The middlemen often escape charges, said Nafiul Islam, special superintendent of police for immigration, because migrant workers - distrustful of police and often linked through community ties to local labour brokers - prefer not to identify the middlemen and negotiate directly with them to get their money back.
The pattern of fraud and corruption is similar in Nepal, one of the largest sources of low-skilled labour for Gulf nations and Malaysia. Every day about 1,670 Nepalis leave to work abroad, according to its Department of Foreign Employment.
Nepali migrants’ remittances are equal to 23.6 percent of the country’s gross national product, according to the International Labour Organization.
But one in every 250 Nepalis who leave for work abroad is duped. Agents promise good wages, adequate working hours and comfortable living conditions, but workers arrive to starkly different realities. The foreign employment office received 2,305 complaints of labour outsourcing fraud in the last year, with claims amounting to 1.1 billion Nepalese rupees ($10.7 million).
“Most migrant workers are given false promises by recruiting agents and they fall for it,” said Mahendra Pandey, president of Prawasi Nepali Coordination Committee, a migrants’ advocacy group that helps victims of outsourcing fraud.
“There are even cases of workers being trafficked to other countries while being shown the contract of companies of another country without the worker’s knowledge.”
While the Department of Foreign Employment has launched a village education campaign, city workers are vulnerable, too.
Kumar Gurung was promised a job as a driver with a monthly salary of almost $500 in Doha, Qatar, in 2010. He left his job as a bus driver in Kathmandu, borrowed nearly $2,500 from a relative and added his savings of $1,000 to pay a recruitment agency for documents, including a work permit and visa, and left for Doha.
“The manpower agency had told me that I would be received by an agent in Doha and taken to the workplace. But when nobody turned up at the airport I realised I had been duped,” recalled the 27-year-old.
Gurung contacted a relative in Doha and worked at a garage for two years to raise enough money to pay back his debts.
When he returned, he filed a case against the agents involved, and it is under investigation.
“The worst thing is that the agent who landed me in this trouble is my cousin,” he said.
This story was reported as part of a journalism training programme run by the International Center for Journalists. Editing by Stella Dawson and Alisa Tang at the Thomson Reuters Foundation.