THE government seems to have failed to work out a comprehensive plan to protect migrant worker rights in destination countries. Migrant workers routinely return home exploited and empty-handed. On an average, as an expatriates’ welfare and overseas employment ministry report says, 11 dead bodies of migrant workers return home every day. In 2019, more than 900 women workers came back home enduring physical abuse and sexual violence. Thousands of undocumented workers in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia are living in fear of arrest. On Sunday, 175 Bangladeshi workers were deported by Saudi authorities even though some of them have the required papers. In this context, a government delegation left for Saudi Arabia to discuss the issues with authorities. Similar official visits were made earlier but no effective change could be made in the lives of the expatriate community. Malaysia has, meanwhile, cancelled the earlier government-to-government agreement on labour migration as unscrupulous recruiting agents, especially in Bangladesh, were found abusing the instrument. The government has been conspicuously inactive about policy changes to protect migrant worker rights.
Protecting migrant worker rights is a cross-border issue and it must be dealt with in view of the international nature of the problem. The Bangladesh government must raise its concern in different international forums, including Colombo Process, Bali Process and Abu Dhabi dialogue. In doing so, it first needs to sensitise labour wings of Bangladesh missions in destination countries, more specifically in the Middle East. Officials should take initiative to help workers in crisis by taking up the issue of labour rights violation with relevant ministries. There should be a mechanism in place to negotiate decisions of deportation on unjust grounds that have largely been taken unilaterally by authorities in destination countries. The recently deported workers complained that foreign missions of Bangladesh did not help them in any manner. Rights activists, local and international, have argued that it is because of the exploitative working conditions that workers have become undocumented. Today, workers are deported on grounds that they do not have travel documents, they have fled their original place of employment or overstayed their visa. There are cases when employers or recruiting agencies confiscate passports from workers on arrival. Workers often leave their primary placement to escape torture. When workers remain unpaid and underpaid for months, they overstay their visa to recover the money that they often manage by taking loan at high interest or selling homestead for earning a living abroad. Without addressing these underlying concerns, the number of undocumented workers is likely to continue to rise which in the end will not only hurt the workers but also Bangladesh’s remittance earning.
The government must, therefore, work with international bodies, including International Labour Organisation, and diplomatically engage with other nations that export cheap labour and advocate a legal mechanism through which deportation decisions will no longer be made unilaterally by the authorities of destination countries as evidenced in recent cases of Saudi Arabia.
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