Punished in Malaysia, ignored in Nepal

FLASHBACK: Nepal’s Labour Minister Tek Bahadur Gurung met with Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (left) in Kuala Lumpur in 2015, agreeing on letting private Malysian and Nepali companies to process visas for Nepali workers.

The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission began prosecution this week against Malaysia’s former Deputy Prime Minister and Internal Affairs Minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, for charges against corruption related to migrant labour.

Hamidi was arrested on 24 June and released on bail after being charged with 33 crimes, including one that claims he took more than 42 million Malaysian Ringgit (more than $10 million), as a bribe for letting the Malaysian company, Ultra Kirana, become a One Stop Center (OSC) for visa processing and labour migration. If these allegations are proven, Hamidi could face a jail sentence of up to 20 years.

Hamidi was named in a joint investigation conducted by Nepali Times and Malaysiakini last year in a Rs1.9 billion scam that cheated tens of thousands of poor Nepalis between 2013-17 who were migrating to work in Malaysia.

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Ultra Kirana, the company accused of bribing Hamidi, represents Malaysia’s VLN company in Nepal, that processes the visa applications of Nepali migrant workers going to Malaysia. VLN Nepal used to collect illegal fees from labourers and send the money to Ultra Kirana through informal channels.

Since the investigation was published, the government in Malaysia changed after elections, and both countries banned the Nepali workers going to Malaysia pending an inquiry. Nepal Labour Minister Gokarna Bista promised to clean up the racket and make it fee-free for Nepalis wanting to work in Malaysia. The ban has still not been lifted.

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In Malaysia, investigations on Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government began after a new government was formed under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad following the general elections in 2018. Hamidi, who was the Internal Affairs Minister in Razak’s administration, was arrested for the first time in October 2018 by Malaysia’s Anti-Corruption Commission.

He was charged with acquiring at least 114 million Ringgit ($2.6 million) through illegal means, and 45 cases were filed at the High Court, including 27 cases of money laundering, 10 of breach of trust, and 8 for accepting bribes.

Among the charges of bribery was one that alleged that he accepted more than $3 million from three companies including Profound Radiance, which used to collect the passports of Nepali workers and take them to the Malaysian Embassy in Kathmandu. The charge sheet mentions that Hamidi accepted a total of three bank cheques worth 2 million Ringgit ($300,000) from Ajlan Shah Jafril, the Director of Profound Radiance.

Read also: Dying to work in Malaysia, Sonia Awale

Malaysia’s Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi met Nepal’s then Labour Minister Tek Bahadur Gurung in 2015 and outsourced the work to Ultra Kirana Sdn Bhd which required Nepali migrant workers to apply for work visas through the Kathmandu-based affiliate, Malaysia VLN Nepal. The agency charged Rs3,200 from every Malaysia-bound Nepali worker, and collected Rs1.95 billion from more than 600,000 workers between September 2013 and April 2018.

Then in July 2015, Malaysia made it mandatory for all Nepali migrants to undergo a biometric test for which the Malaysian government hired Bestinet Sdn Bhd, a tech firm run by Hamidi’s brother-in-law Amin Bin Abdul Nor. Hamidi’s brother Abdul Hakim Hamidi and ex-Malaysian Environment Minister Ajmi Khalid also reportedly owned shares in Bestinet.

Read also: Hounded out of Malaysia, Om Astha Rai

Bestinet partnered with Nepal Health Professional Federation (NHPF) to carry out biometric screening through 39 medical centres which charged Rs4,500 from each migrant worker for biometrics. Bestinet denied the allegations, and in a statement published in July 2018, they hinted that it could take legal action against Nepali Times and the reporters.

Previously, migrant workers could apply for visas independently or through a manpower agency. They could get a work visa for just Rs700, and could have medical tests done at any of 200 government-approved health facilities.

In Nepal, the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security started prosecuting the company that charged migrant labourers extra fees. Since then, Nepali workers were stopped from going to Malaysia even though the two governments signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on October 2018 to resume sending workers.

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The Minister for Labour, Gokarna Bista, says the selection of an institution for health checkups of aspiring labour migrants is in the last stages now, adding that the Joint Technical Committee, tasked with implementing the MoU, is preparing for its second meeting.

“No one has the right to swindle workers. The ministry’s stance on the companies that created a syndicate in visa processing remains the same,” Bista told Nepali Times.

However, even as the case against Hamidi moves forward in the Malaysian courts, in Nepal, the counterparts of the companies involved have gone scot free.

None of the companies involved, or the senior officials who allowed Hamidi to get away with swindling labour migrants, have been investigated.

Read also: Nepal-Malaysia Labour Pact, Ramu Sapkota  

Additional reporting by Abdul Rashid