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Home > Business > Columnists > Guest Column > Sunanda K Datta-Ray

Promised an overseas job? Beware!

October 28, 2006

Datuk N Parameswaran, Malaysia's high commissioner to Singapore, a jolly bubbly Tamil in bright batik, is deeply worried. The cause of his anxiety suggests the need for a global office with impeccable credentials to keep a watchful eye on the movement of manpower, whether of Bangladeshis to Spain, Filipinos to the Gulf, Bulgarians to Britain or - as now  - Malaysians to Singapore.

After all, Paul Ackroyd, head of Britain's Department of International Development, described migration as "a vital tool for development in south and east Asia [that] can benefit both the sending and the receiving countries."

The Datuk, a Malaysian title roughly equivalent to Britain's knighthood, has just tumbled to that old truism that where there's money there's muck, the muck in this case being immigration crooks and their rackets. With eight million Asians working abroad earning around $30 billion annually, migration is big business.

The Malaysian high commission in Singapore conducted a survey of 184 complaints in January and the results were not comforting. There may be nothing dramatic like the possibly apocryphal tale of an aircraft laden with Britain-bound migrants from the Doaba that took off from Ludhiana (or was it Jalandhar?), circled overhead several times and then made its way to Delhi, offloading in Palam's domestic airport starry-eyed young villagers who thought they were landing in Bradford or Leeds whose streets were paved with gold.

But it's sad to hear of Malaysians stranded in Singapore locked up in chicken coops and ill-treated. Some try desperately to swim across the Strait of Johor to sneak home; others attempt to burgle the offices of the criminal agents who hold them in thrall.

These Singaporean agents hang to the men's passports as security until they can redeem bonds of anything up to the equivalent of a lakh of rupees. Of course, the bonds are illegal. But Singapore is the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow, and simple folk - Parameswaran says they are mainly labourers, cleaners and gardeners - from Johor and the two north Borneo Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah are easily duped.

The agents promise them well-paid jobs in Singapore in return for a bond promising a lump sum or weekly payments. There's no job when they cross the causeway but they still have to pay the bond money if they want their passports back.

Dozens of hapless victims have been sleeping in Singapore mosques or in the Tanjong Pagar railway station which - and this is a historical anachronism - is a Malaysian property though in the heart of Singapore's business district. The bogus job sharks can't even be prosecuted because apart from trans-border complications, there isn't enough hard evidence of their misdeeds.

"My staff have been using their own money to help these people return home as many of them do not even have the 50 ringgit - roughly 22 Singapore dollars - needed to get an emergency certificate from us to exit Singapore," says the kindly high commissioner. Given the sensitive nature of relations across the causeway and the tendency of many Malaysians to accuse Singapore of being too big for its boots, this must be a galling admission.

Singapore must be the only country in the region that doesn't need what its citizens earn abroad. Otherwise, remittances are a staple source of income for most developing nations. They accounted for 40 per cent of India's trade deficit in 2001, more than half of Bangladesh's development budget and most of Pakistan's foreign exchange sources.

The Philippines ranked third among developing countries in this respect, the $6.4 billion dollars workers sent back amounting to 8.9 per cent of the GDP.

Four important points about this traffic must be stressed.

First, Asian migrants working overseas send home more than the funds that their countries receive from Western donors. The World Bank estimates that remittances make up about 42 per cent of all foreign investment flows into developing countries.

Second, remittances are a buffer against shock waves. Whereas a slump at home encourages more workers to go overseas and send back more money, it discourages foreign direct investment.

Third, women make up around 50 per cent of Asian migrants. Not only do they often face demands for higher payments from recruitment agents but they are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse. Surveys show those women who stay back while their husbands go abroad also suffer financial and other difficulties. Often, it's they who raise the funds for husbands to travel in the first place.

Finally, two million Asians leave their homes every year to work abroad. Most make for Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states or the US where pickings are usually better than elsewhere.

There are other aspects, too, to the story. Britain is agitated over migration from east Europe. The International Development Department's figures show the vast majority of migrants stay within their own borders. Human smuggling is a lucrative trade.

Even so, there is a case for a global equivalent of India's protector of emigrants through whose office all traffic must be channelled. It would spare the poor much unnecessary heartbreak. It would also restore Parameswaran's jollity.

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