A man’s destination is his own village,
His own fire, and his wife’s cooking;
To sit in front of his own door at sunset
And see his grandson, and his neighbour’s grandson
Playing in the dust together.
— TS Eliot
IN THE first eight months of 2019, Bangladesh has received dead in body bags on an average of 11 migrant workers every day. In each of the body bag, there are dreams crushed and crumpled — of a man/woman, of his/her family.
Filled with dreams and hope for better future, thousands of poor and young people — skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers — go to earn a future defying the pain and humiliation they endure at home and in destination countries.
According to Wage Earners Welfare Board of the ministry of expatriates’ welfare and overseas employment, a total of 2611 body bags have returned Bangladesh in the first eight months of 2019. The figure this year, it appears, will exceed the number of body bags received in last year —3793 (the highest number recorded in 14 years).
The number of death, however, was not much less in the previous years — 3,387 in 2017 and 3,481 in 2016. According to the records of the welfare board, 39,789 migrant workers have died abroad since 2005. Most of the deaths of migrant workers, different studies and medical reports from the destination countries show, are caused by stroke. Around 94 per cent of these deaths are unnatural, with 62 per cent of the deaths caused by stress-related stroke and 18 per cent of them are caused by accidents.
How come, so many young men and women — most migrant workers are aged between 25 and 40 — fall prey to such fatal level of stress. Exploitative working condition and inhuman arrangement for living abroad, debt at home, pressure of making some fortune are said to be the reasons behind the irreducible level of stress that leave a young soul to embrace his/her death in their prime years in a foreign land with no one to say some loving words or shed a drop of tear.
The death rate, by any measure, is way too high and the government attention to it is long overdue. But, sadly, the government has been able to do virtually nothing concerning the safety and rights of migrant workers. Mistreatment and a sense of abandonment are what the migrant workers, whose remittance remains to be one of the mainstays of the country’s economy, are meted with. To note, Bangladesh Bank recorded 14.98 and 16.41 billion US dollars flowing into the country during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 fiscal years, respectively.
Reports are rampant that migrant workers, when turn to Bangladeshi missions for support, are turned down, ill-treated and often harassed. Videos of mistreatment of migrant workers at the hands of officials of Bangladeshi missions have also surfaced many a time on social media giving a glimpse into the bleak and helpless situation the workers are in.
In fact, each of the migrant workers’ tales are replete with plights and predicaments, sorrows and tortures that they suffer abroad not only at the hand of the employers, but also at the hand of the Bangladeshi missions. The migrant workers’ stories narrate, to begin, how they pay for the exorbitantly high migration cost, more so because of the presence of middlemen and brokers in the process that is left poorly attended by the government, how they are tortured, physically, mentally and sexually, how they are not paid their proper wages regularly, how they are not afforded the protection that they deserve by the Bangladeshi missions abroad.
Why does the government, whose coffers are filled with the hard-earned money by these poor labourers, act so callously and so irresponsibly? Why can’t the government ensure that migrant workers are given the support by the missions abroad? Why can’t the government negotiate with the governments of the destination countries as to the welfare and well-being of the workers?
Besides lack of political will and determination of the government to support the cause of the migrant workers, there are other issues that the government has failed to ensure for smooth and safe migration, better working and living condition, acceptable working hours and wages abroad.
One of the major reasons behind the government’s incapacity to better deal with the issue is that Bangladesh does not have binding bilateral agreements with most of the destination countries, on the basis of which the government could have pressurised governments of the destination countries to provide safety to migrant workers.
Bangladesh has bilateral agreements, which are binding, for sending workers with only two countries — Kuwait and Qatar. With 11 other destination countries — Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, South Korea, Oman, Libya, Bahrain, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Maldives and Kampuchea — Bangladesh has memorandums of understanding, which are not binding. Besides, Bangladesh sends some technical interns to Japan under a memorandum of cooperation, which is even weaker than memorandums of understanding. A significant number of Bangladeshis work in different African countries too with which Bangladesh does not even have any memorandum of understanding.
Bilateral agreements, according to the International Labour Organisation, provide for an effective collaboration mechanism between the countries of origin and destination for the migration of workers under agreed principles and procedures. But destination countries often prefer non-binding memorandums of understanding as they are easy to negotiate, implement and modify to the changing economic and labour market conditions. It is, therefore, the duty of the country of origin to push for binding bilateral agreements so that, when need be, the governments of the countries of origin can pressurise for the safety and dignity of its workers abroad.
The government must enhance its efforts to get governments of the destination countries sign bilateral agreements for better migration management to protect the workers’ rights in destination countries and to reap the benefits from worker migration fully.
Adding to that, the government also needs to properly monitor the workings of recruiting agencies and to ease the procedures for overseas migration reducing space for corruption and abuse. There are reports of agencies charging exorbitant fees, sometimes amounting to two to four years’ salary of a migrant worker, which pushes the workers into sort of a bonded labour, eventually forcing them to work 12 to 18 hours in difficult and hazardous working condition. All the poor souls are left to eye for is to make up for the money that they had to pay to migrate, often by taking loans at high interest or by selling homesteads, and to send remittance.
Another issue is of utmost importance, that is, the proper and prompt response of Bangladeshi missions abroad to migrants’ needs and rights. Sadly, there are widespread allegations that our missions abroad are rarely concerned about the rights of the migrant workers. The labour counsellors, who are responsible to redress the grievances of migrant workers, often treat them very poorly. The missions abroad, especially the labour counsellors must not let the migrant workers down on whose hardship and sweat the basket of the country’s foreign currency is inflating.
Bangladeshi missions abroad also need to act on the detention and deportation, which goes on round the year, of migrant workers by authorities in the destination countries. There are reports that migrant workers are detained and deported even after having adequate and valid papers. To mention, over 400 Bangladeshi workers have been sent back home by Saudi Arabian authorities in the last week following the on-going crackdown on undocumented workers there. Over 10,000 Bangladeshi male and female workers were sent back home from the KSA alone in the last eight months. Getting into legal complexities and facing deportation are two strong factors that add to the stress that migrant workers live with.
The abuse of domestic workers, which has made the headlines for umpteen times, with many of them coming back home empty-handed, tortured and traumatised in recent time, must also be attended to properly. Working in an unfamiliar cultural environment, being non-fluent in the local language, they constitute the most vulnerable part of the labour force and easily become victim of physical and sexual abuse. According to a BRAC report, between 2015 and 2018, over 5,000 female workers returned to Bangladesh having had shocking experiences, involving physical torture and sexual violence.
Above all, protection of migrant workers’ rights is a cross-border issue and it, therefore, must be dealt with in view of the international nature of the problem. As a country of origin, the Bangladesh government must raise its concerns in different international forums, including Colombo Process, Bali Process and Abu Dhabi dialogue, to ensure migrant workers’ well-being abroad. The government should work with international bodies including ILO and diplomatically engage with other nations that export cheap labour and advocate for a legal mechanism through which it can ensure migrant workers right in destination countries.
Unless the government goes for serious and concerted effort, the fate of migrant workers — there are over 10 million of them in 168 countries — will not change and more body bags, filled with crushed dreams, will return home daily.
Monwarul Islam is an editorial assistant at New Age.
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