Bangladesh has suspended the passports of five citizens suspected of running a trafficking ring involving hundreds of workers in Brunei and asked the government there to deport them, a senior diplomat said on Friday.
Bangladesh's top diplomat in Brunei said he had received repeated complaints from workers who had paid thousands of dollars to be taken to the wealthy Southeast Asian nation on the promise of jobs that never materialized.
"They keep bringing more people even though there are no jobs," Bangladesh's High Commissioner to Brunei Mahmud Hussain told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"It's like a flesh business. There can't be a bigger criminal activity than this."
Hussain said the government was taking the rare step of suspending their passports in order to trigger their deportation and stop them from operating in Brunei.
"We call most of these brokers to the embassy to solve the problem, but many of these brokers don't even care. They don't come," he said.
"We thought we needed to take strong action against these brokers. We needed to show them that you can't continuously do this crime and getaway."
Bangladeshis were being charged about $4,000 by agents who either failed to get them any work at all or made them work for very low pay, Hussain said.
Hannan Sikdar, 22, sold his family's land to raise the $3,500 that he paid a broker in Bangladesh for a job in Brunei.
"I was told that I would earn so much that I would be able to send 25,000 takas ($300) back home every month," Sikdar said from Brunei by phone.
After reaching Brunei, Sikdar went to work for a week, then was told not to come again. The agent told him he would have to find a new job himself and threatened to have him deported unless he handed over a portion of his monthly salary.
"In the last five months, I only managed to send 35,000 taka back home. I would have earned a lot more in Bangladesh," said Sikdar.
Most of the about 25,000 Bangladeshis in Brunei, a former British protectorate of about 400,000 people, are either employed in the construction industry or own businesses and only a minority are exploited, the High Commission said.
Bangladesh is one of the world's biggest labour-exporting countries and numbers are increasing. At least 1 million Bangladeshis secured jobs overseas in 2017, the highest number ever recorded by the government.
But the country's recruitment system depends largely on unlicensed brokers working in rural areas and opens the door to trafficking and cheating.
Migrant activist Shakirul Islam welcomed the government's move against the suspected human traffickers and said trafficking cases should be filed against them.
"If cases are not filed, our relationship with Brunei in terms of sending workers will take a hit," said Islam, executive director of Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program, a migrant rights organization.
Both Bangladesh and Brunei are on a U.S. State Department watchlist over their human trafficking record, putting them at risk of a downgrade that would trigger sanctions limiting access to international aid.