After arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, they found that the Vietnamese company that sponsored their visas had no jobs for them. After a week, they were asked to work for a furniture factory though they were promised jobs at the seaport.
They had no choice and as the days went by, they realised they were defrauded.
This was the story of 27 Bangladeshi youths stranded in Vietnam and experts say what happened to them in the name of labour recruitment was clearly a case of human trafficking.
"We had to work for 12 to 14 hours a day, but at the end of the month we were given less than 150 to 200 US dollars though in pay slip it was 300 dollars," said Shital Chandra Sarker, one of the victims.
The Vietnamese company owned by a Chinese actually worked as a labour supply agent, not an employer, in collaboration with two Bangladeshi brokers -- Mostafa and Jabbar. They ate up the rest of their wages, he said.
The factory provided meals twice a day and often the food items included pork, frogs and other meats that they were not used to. On holidays, they had to manage food on their own.
The Chinese agent made a rule that if anybody works less than ten days consistently, they won't get salaries, added Shital.
"Two had to sleep in a single bed. We had one bathroom for 16. Many of us got sick by not being able to eat properly."
The issue came to light following the repatriation of 11 other Bangladeshis on July 3.
Since then, more than 60 Bangladeshis, including the 27, have demonstrated in front of the Bangladesh Embassy in Hanoi, complaining of labour exploitation and fraudulence.
The Vietnamese police and the embassy then arranged their accommodation before starting the process of repatriation. They are still in Hanoi as the operations of international flights are yet to begin due to Covid-19 outbreak.
The embassy said it repatriated more than 40 Bangladeshis, who were defrauded, over the last two years. However, in recent times it is finding Bangladeshis with BMET cards though the embassy never had any knowledge that Vietnam had labour demand from Bangladesh.
THE WAY IT EVOLVED
According to the group of 27, agents had promised lucrative job offers, including monthly basic salary of $500-600 for daily eight-hour work plus $1.5 per hour overtime.
Besides, they would get $2.5 overtime per hour on weekly or other holidays, and free food and accommodation, health insurance, renewal of work permit after two years, air ticket for returning home on leave, etc. They were also assured of work permit in 45 days of arrival.
In exchange, they were charged Tk 4-5 lakh each for recruitment in sectors, including shipping, electrical and electronics, as regular employees.
"The agents asked us to come to Dhaka just the day before the flight. We were then asked to sign on blank stamps that they claimed were job contracts. Those who had prior experience of working abroad asked about the job contracts, but tactically the agents avoided it," read an application of the 27, emailed to the Bangladesh Embassy in Hanoi early June.
In the application, they said travel agency Mash Career Services and recruiting agency JK Overseas Ltd arranged their travel, while two of their partners -- Bangladeshi men Mostafa and Jabbar and a Chinese agent -- operated in Vietnam.
MEDIUM OF MONEY LAUNDERING
A new dimension to this organised crime was that jobseekers were used for money laundering.
The Bangladeshis were forced to carry tens of thousands of dollars when they flew to Vietnam early January this year, and the whole thing happened in a very organised way.
"Before giving us our passports and air tickets, each of us was handed over 5,000 US dollars. The agency staff then took our photos with the dollars and asked us to give the money to the brokers in Vietnam," said the application.
Asked why they agreed to carry the dollars, Shital told The Daily Star over the phone that they had spent high amounts for going to Vietnam and they had no way of avoiding it.
The agency staff threatened to cancel their flight when they expressed unwillingness to carry the money, he said.
Faridul Islam, victim from another group, said they too were forced to carry $2,000-3,000 each to pass on to the brokers in Vietnam.
They all said after arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, Mostafa and Jabbar took the dollars and passports from them.
No officials of the two agencies could be found for comments.
MODERN DAY SLAVERY?
The Bangladeshi youths in Vietnam were not given any work permits even after 45 days. Also, their visas were not work visas but either tourist or enterprise visas.
"Our agents might have secured the BMET clearances through fake documents," Shital said.
"We shared our grievances repeatedly but Mostafa and Jabbar would not care. We then went to the police and filed complaints but nothing happened. We assumed the brokers managed the police."
He said there was no formal channel to remit money home from Ho Chi Minh. They gave some money to Mostafa and Jabbar for sending home, but that never reached their families.
They complained to the labour court, which then sent police to their camp and learnt about their complaints in detail.
Shital said they also contacted the Bangladesh Embassy early May. With no solution, they stopped working since mid-June.
"Meanwhile, we got to learn that Jabbar and Mostafa were planning to kidnap the Bangladeshi workers who led the protest against them," said Shital. Fearing for life, they decided to go to Bangladesh Embassy in Hanoi, some 1,100km away from Ho Chi Minh City, on July 2.
What Faridul Islam shared is even worse. He is one of 17 Bangladeshis who had been stranded in Vung Tau and later on July 20 went to Hanoi where they were provided shelter by the Bangladesh mission and Vietnam police.
He said in the last six months, they were taken to many companies in Vung Tau, but none could offer any job, except for a few days.
"I was appointed to work for a glass factory for 22 days and was paid money equal to only Tk 7,000," he told The Daily Star.
He said there could be several hundred Bangladeshis who got stranded in Vietnam and are facing a similar situation.
The Rapid Action Battalion identified at least eight Bangladeshi brokers based in Vietnam -- Abdul Jabbar, Mostafa, Golam Azam Sumon, Kalpana, Azmeer, Milon, Shovon and Atik -- and six recruiting and travel agencies involved in human trafficking in the name of labour recruitment in Vietnam.
A preliminary investigation by Brac Migration Programme found links of six recruiting and five travel agencies to the human trafficking to Vietnam.
Also, it got to know of 37 Vietnamese companies linked to it.
BMET ROLE QUESTIONED
Experts are now questioning the role of the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET) as to how the regulatory body issued emigration clearances to them without authenticating the jobs in Vietnam.
Noor Khan Liton, a migrant rights activist, said this seems to be an organised crime by illegal manpower brokers, travel and recruiting agents.
False promises, fraudulent job documents, using workers like slaves, low pays, exploitative living conditions, workers' indebtedness -- these all form the crime of human trafficking as defined in the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act-2012.
"It is mysterious how such an organised crime has been happening. We need to question the role of the Bangladesh Embassy in Vietnam and the BMET in Dhaka," he told The Daily Star.
Bangladesh Ambassador to Vietnam, Samina Naz, said she repatriated 43 Bangladeshis, who were defrauded in the name of jobs, over the last two years.
"I wrote to the home and expatriates' ministries about such human trafficking several times in the last two years," she told The Daily Star.
Samina said the BMET never communicated with the embassy for verification of any companies in Vietnam before issuing emigration clearance. Bangladesh has no deal with Vietnam for labour recruitment.
She said Bangladeshis were sent to Vietnam with tourist and enterprise visas though they were allured with jobs.
Contacted, BMET Director General Shamsul Alam said sending people to Vietnam is nothing new though Bangladesh does not have any MoU with that country. At least 1,275 people had gone there in such a way since 2007.
Asked how the BMET issued immigration clearances, he said those who went to Vietnam should respond why they used an enterprise visa to go there.
"If they went for jobs, why did they take BMET cards as entrepreneurs? We gave them the cards as per their contract papers," he added.
Asked how BMET verified the job contracts presented to them by the recruiting agents, he avoided replying to the question.
Expatriates' Welfare Minister Imran Ahmad said, "We have formed a committee to probe how BMET issued cards for Vietnam-bound people when it is not a labour market."