The title of this article is inspired by American author John Steinbeck’s famous novel Of Mice and Men. The plot of this novella captures the thesis for this piece. The two men in Steinbeck’s novella were migrant ranch workers, although from a different era, situated in a part of the world far away from Bangladesh.
The Bengali word for a broker is dalal. Dalals have a negative connotation in Bengali culture. During the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971, for instance, those who collaborated with the occupying Pakistani forces and eventually were part the extra-judicial forces – that Razakar and the Al-Badr – are still termed dalals of Pakistan.
Traditionally, in Bengali society, dalals are the sort of evil one cannot do without. Or rather that one does not want to do without – for one’s own convenience. However, in formal discourse, such as in the mainstream media, they are usually known as ‘middlemen.’ In this description, it is easier to acknowledge their profession. Middlemen are essentially go-betweens to help people obtain a service, even if it is an illegitimate service. This is a profession for many and has been for generations – there is no age bar, no rural–urban difference and even no digital divide.
The point here is not to glorify dalals. But the reality is that they have a role in Bangladeshi society. There is no denying this fact. Despite this, dalals are not in a legalised profession, their service charges are high and they work in a non-transparent manner. Dalals will never provide you with a receipt for the service they provide!
Dalals in Bangladesh are the villains in movies that everyone loves to hate.
Dalals in Bangladesh are the villains in movies that everyone loves to hate. People do eventually use their services because they get the job done, albeit in exchange for money. They do the dirty work. The person who needs the support is able to move the load off their own shoulders.
In early September of 2021, the Bangladeshi media reported that the authorities were hunting down dalals. Bangladeshi authorities have either fined or incarcerated hundreds of dalals across the country, active in public service sectors such as health, transport and passport procurement. Specialised law enforcement forces have been deployed to conduct a dalal purge. Despite this, the reality remains that it is difficult to curb dalal-ism through legal punitive actions alone.
Dalal-ism is deeply rooted in Bangladesh. The truth is that citizens themselves have been used to using the services of dalals for years.
Migration in Bangladesh and the role of dalals
As in various sectors in Bangladesh, dalals are active in overseas migration. Their services are myriad. Whether for temporary labour migration or for student visa-cum-permanent migration, there is a dalal for everything-migration.
The global number of international migrants is almost 272 million. That means 3.5% of the world population are migrants. Bangladeshis play their part in this mobility.
Global mobility is an ancient phenomenon. This is how civilisations have evolved over the centuries and across different lands and continents. Of course, migrating from one land to another was much more fluid many centuries ago, without border rules and regulations, even though the transport system was slower. Today transport is rapid but it has become harder to migrate.
Bangladeshis have been migrating to neighbouring countries and to the distant west since the 1940s–1950s, using a mix of regular and irregular means. It was only in the 1970s that overseas migration began to be regulated. This means dalals have existed in the migration sector since the 1970s, alongside more visible and formalised recruiting agents.
The precise number of permanent Bangladeshi migrants is unknown. However, about 10 million temporary labour migrants from Bangladesh are present in over 165 countries at any given time, with a large majority of them in the Persian Gulf region. Their remittances represent an economic backbone for the country, making up 6% of gross domestic product.
The annual outflow of migrant workers is 700,000 (during the covid-19 pandemic, in 2020, the number was about 200,000). Migrant workers in Bangladesh are mostly low-income people from rural areas.
Experts estimate that 80% of these migrant workers go abroad, work and return to their communities with the assistance of dalals – even if they go with formal documents and through formal channels. The migration-related dalals of Bangladesh either provide a package deal with all the official clearance or partially help with the paperwork, such as by obtaining a passport or air ticket.
Sometimes, the dalals themselves do the hands-on work of providing the migration-related service. They use their network from the village, or are registered recruiting agents in major cities of Dhaka and Chittagong.
This means that some dalals have formal registration. While there are about 1,000 such registered agents, there are possibly thousands of unregistered, unregulated dalals who indirectly contribute to the national economy. Food for thought!
The real face of the migration dalals
For researchers, few opportunities exist to talk to dalals or document their activities. Some references can be drawn from studies on migration, including from the author’s own. Dalals, middlemen, sub-agents, whatever you may call them, are usually in their 30s–40s. They are related to almost every family in areas that have a tradition of labour migration. Most dalals are men but a few women facilitate the migration of women.
Dalals, middlemen, sub-agents, whatever you may call them, are usually in their 30s–40s.
Average active ‘dalal life’ is 10–12 years. For many this is a part-time job, as migration is seasonal, demand-driven from overseas job markets. At other times of the year, dalals take up alternative professions. For the smaller dalals, the place of business for clients – potential migrants – is in neighbourhood shops or at tea stalls. For those who have another profession, this space of work may also be a client meeting point.
Bangladesh’s migration sector has different flavours of dalal. Some are full-time professional dalals. Others are part-timers, who just have contacts abroad for arranging work opportunities for friends, relatives or neighbours who want to leave. Sometimes, a local spiritual practitioner (known as a pir) assists potential migrants. Some dalals are themselves former migrants. Former migrants often know the shortcuts to legal migration, and when they share their experiences, they can quickly win the trust of potential migrants.
There are sometimes conflicts among the different categories of dalals. The cause of these is simple: they are competing for the same migrant’s attention (and money). Dalals are mostly active in rural areas. However, their sources of information on employment visas or foreign job opportunities include recruiting agencies in Dhaka city or migrants living abroad.
Any arrangement and transaction dalals carry out, as intermediaries, is informal – verbal, in person or over the phone. There is no fixed official service charge – but it can vary from USD 250 to USD 3,500 – depending on the destination country and the efforts involved in delivering the service. Some of Bangladesh’s migration dalals specialise in particular countries, usually three to four of them, based on their experience.
The main services that dalals provide include helping with registration, obtaining passports, arranging training, obtaining training certificates, arranging official briefings for migrant workers, buying air tickets and immigration clearance. Practitioners in Bangladesh’s migration sector say that the dalals provide a dozen essential services in the migration process that it would be very hard for an aspirant migrant to deal with alone.
One thing is essential. The dalal’s service and the transaction do not always bring about positive results. Often, the dalals and the migrant workers alike claim that this informal system works. But if the promise of a job abroad is false, or if some part of the process goes wrong, dalals get away with the wrongdoing. They may deny any confirmed promises. Or they simply move to an untraceable locality.
Dalals have their vices. However, they are often friends with the aspirant migrants, even if they cannot be fully trusted. They don’t wear masks or operate in the middle of the night. They are no villains!
Laws that bind
Since the 1980s, Bangladesh has taken steps to regulate the migration sector, with moderate success. The main challenge is that migrants often become victims of irregular migration or human trafficking. Dalals undeniably contributes to this problem. Bangladesh’s government developed an immigration ordinance in 1982, set up a migrant welfare fund in 1990 and a separate ministry on migration in 2001, formulated a migration policy in 2006, established a migrant welfare bank in 2010, ratified the UN convention on migration in 2011, approved a law on human trafficking in 2012 and a law on labour migration in 2013 and enacted a migrant welfare act in 2018.
The main challenge is that migrants often become victims of irregular migration or human trafficking. Dalals undeniably contributes to this problem.
These legal and policy instruments have been able to regulate the formal registered agencies within the migration sector but not the dalals. A major reason is that dalals are difficult to monitor at the village level. Bangladeshi films and television often depict dalals as evil. However, a dalal is often just ‘every villager’ – maybe a small trader, a shopkeeper, a former migrant, a relative, a friend – who knows the ropes.
In Bangladesh, after consultations between the government and civil society during late 2020 and early 2021, the migration-relevant ministry, the Ministry of Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment, has started reviewing the Overseas Employment Act 2013.
The proposed amendments clearly define a dalal, or sub-agent or middleman, as any person providing a migration-related service, whether officially employed, appointed or paid. This is a good step forward. The law is officially recognising dalals, whereas till now they have been invisible in laws and policies on migration. The amendment also proposes that dalals be registered under formal recruiting agents. It stipulates that a licensed agency can register a maximum of 20 dalals.
Laws aren’t enough
In Bangladesh’s case, regulatory measures to resolve the informality, irregularity and sometimes illegality of the dalal trade will not be enough. Informality is in the DNA of dalal-ism. Dalals operate informally in every sector, and they will try do so in the migration sector also.
Government agencies on migration are only down to the district level, and recruiting agencies are centrally located. Buried into complicated paperwork for the semi-literate poor in rural areas, migrants and middlemen will find each other to work things out. The policy to register the dalals will be difficult to enforce, primarily because the dalals operate very informally in the villages. Formalised institutions on migration and recruiting agencies do not have the capacity to monitor at the village level. The dalal system’s ability to be at the grassroots is its biggest strength.
The reality check
It is a reality in Bangladesh that an incumbent migrant worker who does not know how to navigate the puzzling channels of migration has no other option other than depending on dalals. The dalals’ evil face is a reality too – but studies, literature and the media lay too much of an emphasis on this. For a migrant, the dalals are closer and more trusting than the unknown authorised recruiters and state institutions.
Dalals in the labour migration sector are part of the continuum in the migration process, even though they do not come under any government-regulated system. Quite often, they are the local and visible link to the migrants in the villages within the rest of the migration process. Local potential migrants do not consider the dalals evils. For them, dalals are the first helping hand in the migration process. The dalals are essentially a ‘one stop service’ for potential migrants.
Dalals are also often related to the migrants. This is why, even when there is wrongdoing, the victims are reluctant to go ahead with a complaint.
The informality of dalals’ operations is the main challenge to Bangladeshi authorities in tracking and regulating their activities.
The informality of dalals’ operations is the main challenge to Bangladeshi authorities in tracking and regulating their activities. They are often difficult to identify, as most operate independently. Recruitment agencies in Bangladesh claim that they would not be able to reach prospective migrants from rural areas without the services of the dalals. And an informal subcontracting system enables recruiters to distance themselves from the illegal activities. The dalals profit from the difficulty involved in monitoring them.
If you can’t beat them, join them
Bangladeshi authorities can simply re-envision migration. If the dalals can be seen as providing a service to society, one move is the proposed law reform – register them legally so that the service they provide is transparent and they can be held accountable. But this needs supplementary efforts because dalals will not register voluntarily – because they have no incentive. They also know that it will be hard for the authorities to track them. When alerted, they can camouflage their trade with another profession. Aspirant migrants will also keep protecting their trusted ally, the dalal.
A supplementary approach could be to create awareness among aspirant migrants about the dangers and the exploitations of the dalal system. These awareness campaigns need not shun dalals. In fact, dalals can be of use. For instance, with awareness, migrants could check with dalals if their documents and services are legitimate, if the job contract and the employer are trustworthy and how to hold a dalal accountable if fraud occurs.
In the case of Bangladesh, awareness programmes for migrants will have by-product benefits: legal literacy. Migrants will be able to brush up on rule of law, which will be essential if they go abroad.
Dalals can also be trained. Training programmes can incorporate awareness on migration-related laws and on the recruitment process. Dalals can be provided with brief, easy-to-use booklets on the dos and don’ts of migration and human trafficking. Better awareness on legal matters may compel them to follow government procedures.
Meanwhile, recourse to the law may be considered for some very unscrupulous dalals, to set an example. But punishment cannot be the main focus. Once the law recognises dalals, it will be necessary to recognise the the nature of their trade as well. They are informal service providers. So, recognise them for this.
The Bangladeshi authorities and the dalals are in a cat and mouse chase. Recognise dalal-ism! The chase can end!
 A sub-clause mentions that, for all migration-related activities of the appointed sub-agent or representative, both the related registered recruiting agent and their sub-agent (dalal) will be responsible collectively and separately.
Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu