About 56 Bhutanese who went to Malaysia through an agent’s study and work programme submitted a petition to the labour ministry on October 8, requesting the ministry to look into the issues they have raised.
The candidates claimed that the agent, Best Placement Agency (BPA) promised them guaranteed employment for two years after completing their two-year diploma course. They alleged that on reaching Malaysia, they learnt there was no guaranteed employment.
An agreement between BPA and the candidate states that the candidates undertake 15 months of vocational training and a separate nine months paid internship offered. “Depending upon the candidate’s performance and successful completion of the training, the candidate can also be offered two-year employment.”
Two Bhutanese, Sangay and Tshering who have returned to Bhutan claimed they were caught working in a restaurant and detained by the Malaysian Immigration for 11 nights.
In Malaysia, they said, international students were not allowed to work as cashiers, singers, masseurs, and musicians. Only after they were detained, they learnt that international students were allowed to work on a part-time basis during semester breaks, festive holidays or more than seven days of holiday for a maximum of 20 hours a week.
“We went to Malaysia through BPA because the agent was licensed by the labour and education ministries. We trusted the agent,” Sangay said. “Our dream was to build a career and repay the loan”
“They were supposed to take us on a student visa but we were given a special pass for three months, which we had to renew every month at our own expense,” Tshering said. “Only after three months, I got my student card and a student visa for a year. We were told we will get a student visa for two years.”
Tshering who went to Malaysia in March this year to pursue culinary arts on self-funding, said that the standard of the academy was not what it claimed to be.
“Few months after I reached Malaysia, I wrote to the overseas programme officer with the labour ministry informing that we were not allowed to work and requested the ministry to look into it,” Sangay said. “Then, only the third batch of students was there. Now the 13th batch is also in Malaysia.”
He claimed the ministry forwarded the email to the agent and then to the college and that he was emotionally blackmailed for lodging a complaint.
Sangay was in Malaysia for the last one and half years. During his time there, he claimed the college held his passport.
The candidates Kuensel talked to claim that the paid internship the college offers paid them less. Sangay said the amount was just enough to repay the loan. “We did not have money to pay for our basic needs like rent and food so we had no choice but to look for a job on our own which paid more.”
A candidate who is still in Malaysia said the agent promised to provide good education and good earning which would be enough to repay the loan and pay for their expenses. “The agent convinced me when they offered the programme. But, things are totally different here.”
Since October 2016, BPA has sent 92 students on the earn and learn programme in Malaysia to date.
Except for few, a majority of candidates availed loan from the Bank of Bhutan Ltd (BoBL) to undergo two-year diploma course at SG Academy in Malaysia. The institute offers diploma in mechatronic technology, computer systems, creative multimedia, food and beverages and culinary arts.
Sangay applied for culinary arts through the agent in November 2016. He claimed he waited for eight months after applying. His loan was approved earlier and he was paying the interest before he left for Malaysia from the loan he had availed.
“In the hostel, we were asked to pay Malaysian Ringgit (RM) 200 as a security deposit and RM 200 as rent every month excluding utility bills. We have to buy three meals and it was expensive to live in the hostel,” he said.
The BPA official said the contract between the agent and the candidate does not mention anything about providing accommodation and food.
“We had an obligation to repay the loan as per the loan agreement and we had no other choice but to work illegally,” Sangay said. “We were paid little higher for the job that we found ourselves.”
While the candidates claimed they paid more than Nu 300,000 to the agent, which was to take care of everything including food and lodging, the BPA official claimed that each student paid about Nu 200,000 (USD 3,050) for two-years tuition fees to the academy and airfare of Nu 51,950. Tuition fees differed among candidates depending on the foreign exchange rates.
“The tuition fee is discounted for Bhutanese students by almost 33 percent and we negotiated this with the college,” the official said.
She said that the tuition fee is transferred by the candidate from their bank account, in the presence of bank officials to SG through international banking channels, and BPA does not handle any cash.“BPA collects no agent fee and no processing fee from any of the candidates for the Malaysia programme,” she said.
Some candidates Kuensel talked to say they couldn’t return to Bhutan because they won’t be able to repay the loan and it would be a burden for their parents.
BPA officials claim the allegation against the agency is not true. “The reputation of my company that I have built in the last three years had been ruined by a fake Facebook profile account,” the official said.
The official said that the government was strict on anything that overseas employment agencies do. “We are governed by the guidelines of the overseas agency under the department for employment of the labour ministry.”
About eight candidates recruited for the same programme in Malaysia and were scheduled to fly to Kula Lampur on December 3 have now withdrawn their applications.
“Why not take me to court if there is something illegal? Or take me to labour ministry if there is something illegal because the labour ministry will always protect them. Why is the media being used if they feel we have done them wrong,” the official said. “From our side, we are answerable to the students, the parents and the ministry.”
The other issue was on the bank interest rates. The candidates claim they availed education loan with an interest rate of about seven percent while they were charged about 12 percent.
The official said that the BoBL supports the programme through a collateral free loan for which, the candidate has to get a support letter from the government.
Most candidates availed a loan of about Nu 400,000 from the bank.
Another candidate in Malaysia said he is paying about Nu 13,000 to the bank each month. “If it is education loan then I feel I am paying high-interest and if it is an employment loan, then where is the legal employment opportunities in Malaysia with reasonable pay scale to meet my loan repayments?”
The BPA official said the candidates have accused the agent of manipulating the interest rate. The bank established the interest rate at 12.13 percent. “For me, it was the most ludicrous allegation that I couldn’t even entertain. BPA has no say or any authority over the established interest rate and the students and their guarantors were aware of the interest rate as they sign the loan application form.”
The candidates claimed that about 90 percent of the students in Malaysia who went there through the agent looked for jobs themselves because the agent with the academy paid them less for the job they offered.
The officials with the agent claimed that SG academy informed the BPA that candidates were not adhering to the contracts of paid internships, had left their internships and were not consistent in their work timings. Considering the student’s capacity to earn and following their requests, the agent requested the SG academy to hand over the internship letters to the students so as to allow them to work legally part-time in a company or place of their choice. “The students’ with the internship letters from the college are allowed to work on a student visa.”
Sonam (name changed) who is in Malaysia undergoing the same programme, said she is having a difficult time repaying the loan and surviving in a foreign land. She earns about RM 1,700 from her work while the college internship paid her RM 1,300.
“I am not getting any knowledge as I attend classes two days a week and I am living in fear that I might get caught by immigration,” Sonam said.
Sangay and Tshering said they want their Bhutanese friends in Malaysia to be able to come home because they are not safe there. “I don’t want them to go through what my friend and I had to in the detention centre,” Sangay said,
Besides Sangay and Tshering, some of the candidates in Malaysia have also emailed officials of the labour ministry requesting them to look into the issues.
Chief Programme Officer with the labour ministry, Chhoeki Penjor said the ministry, after receiving the complaint, met with the two candidates and also the agent. “We have asked the agent to submit documents and respond to the issues the two candidates raised.”
The ministry is reviewing the issue. Acknowledging the hardships faced by some of the candidates who went overseas through the earn and learn programme in countries like Japan and Malaysia, labour minister Ugyen Dorji said their concerns were genuine and there are issues in the nature of the programme.
“But the issue is not as bad as it is portrayed in the media. The programme is new and there are some issues. We are reviewing the overall overseas programme, which would take a few months,” Lyonpo said. “We will strengthen the programme and address the issues.”
On October 23, Sangay and Tshering claimed that they were working as waiters in a restaurant at a place called Bangsar in Kula Lumpur when immigration officials disguised as customers asked for the menu.
“We were waiting for their order when they said they were from the immigration. We told them we are students and working part-time. They said international students were not allowed to work, even part-time jobs,” Sangay said.
The immigration officials handcuffed them and their chief, an Indian national.
As immigration officers continue to raid, Sangay said it took longer for their car to reach the immigration headquarter in Jalan Duta. They were arrested around 10pm and reached the detention centre around 1am.
“That was the only time we had to ask for help. We ask one of our friends to call Chitra, who looks after the international students’ affairs at the college,” Tshering said. “We told her what happened and asked her to come to the immigration headquarters. She said she will come the next day.”
They then called the proprietor of the college but he did not respond. “We also asked our Bhutanese friend to follow up with the college and the agent to help us,” Sangay said.
“We called them because we were confident that they would come and release us,” Tshering said. “After their response, all my hopes were shattered.”
Their phones were seized after they reached the detention centre. After spending a night at the immigration headquarters in handcuffs, knelt down and without food and water, they claimed they were moved to the deport centre the next day where they were kept in different cells for 10 days. They also claimed that they were kept in an office at the centre for about two hours where they were asked to remove their clothes and kept naked for a while.
Tshering said thousands of people were cramped in each cell with no ventilation. “We had to sleep on the dirty cement and drink water from the toilet which is an open space in the cell.”
Each detainee was given a number and called by their numbers. They spent 10 nights and 11 days in the centre along with people from 18 countries.
When they were called to the office at the centre, they were asked to fill a form and the agent’s number.
On the ninth day of their detention, Tshering received a small chit from one of their Bhutanese friends saying he was doing everything he could to help them.
They were released the next day.
A staff from the college came to get them. “The immigration officials warned us that if we are caught again then they will never release us and also asked us to inform our friends. They also issued a warning letter to the college,” he said.