Women workers need new opportunities, well-managed migration

Md Owasim Uddin Bhuyan | Published: 00:55, Nov 29,2019

 
 

A group of female migrant workers, who returned from Saudi Arabia, arrive at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka. — Sourav Lasker

Women migrants from Bangladesh who are dominantly employed as domestic workers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries frequently fall victim at the hands of their employers. The vulnerability to exploitations, physical and sexual abuses has now become the core issue that remains unaddressed while experts worry that Bangladesh should look elsewhere for better employment opportunities.

A significant number of Bangladeshi women migrants have returned home facing abuse, tortures and other forms of exploitation particularly in the KSA and the trend of returnees who have been abused and exploited still continue, according to the government officials.

Experts from the United Nations Network on Migration in Bangladesh have suggested ensuring ‘regular and well-managed female labour migration without putting any restrictions on their mobility.’

They suggested that the Bangladesh government explored alternative opportunities for women migrant workers in the East Asian countries, including Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, comparatively safer destinations.

When asked about protections of migrants, chief of IOM-UN Migration Agency’s mission in Bangladesh, Giorgi Gigauri said that the rights of the migrant women should be protected whether it was in the Middle East or any other countries where the migrants migrated.

‘To make sure they get the first step rights. The first step right is what happens in Bangladesh before they go,’ he said.

He said that ‘if the migrants get the right kinds of information, go through proper recruitment processes and sign authentic contracts, half of the problems would be solved because you are informed, you know who you are working with and everything is legal, regular and well-managed.’

‘Of course, we have to make sure there is a system available at every step, in the country of origin and country of destinations,’ he added.     

He said that most of the migrants have no problems but there are a significant number of people who are being exploited abroad.

About protections, ILO country director for Bangladesh Tuomo Poutiainen told New Age that for both men and women migrants in general there should be a better system in place for protection of migrant workers in the destination countries.

That, of course, includes having more bilateral agreements that would allow for such protection to be established in real terms.

‘I would also say that it is quite important that in the destination countries such as employers’ organisation, workers’ organisations, civil society organisations and governments they also have system of protection in place for those migrants working in the country and contributing to the economic and development wellbeing in the countries of destinations,’ he said.

Tuomo Poutiainen said that after sending workers abroad, the host countries would have responsibility on how to protect the migrants and how to a play positive role.

He said that the ongoing negotiations and discussions with Saudi Arabia in line with manpower deal was commendable and ‘similar agreements should be in place also for other destination countries. Bilateral formal arrangements between two countries is the imperative now.’

He also said that it is important to develop an understanding about roles and responsibilities — this can help protect men and women from re-migration to the country.

Recently, some activists and organisations have been calling for a ban on migration of female workers from Bangladesh, especially to Saudi Arabia where there is a high probability of exploitation, physical and sexual abuse.

When asked, Foreign Affairs ministry director general Nazrul Islam, who is designated for migration issues, told New Age that though there was no immediate solution to the problems, banning migration of female workers is not the solution.

Rather banning could create problems, he said.

However, Nazrul Islam said that to reduce the problems, Bangladesh women workers should be made aware of overseas migration and to this end they must be equipped with adequate information.

Enhancing skills can boost their confidence, he said, adding that appropriate women workers should be selected and trained about new destinations and household equipment before sending them abroad.

He admitted that most of exploitations happened in the Middle East countries and rest of the destinations still seem a better option for the country’s women workers.

‘Our women must be empowered, motivated and ensured that they possessed cell phones so that they can communicate with families in emergencies,’ he said.

According to a government report, about 35 per cent of returned female migrants have faced abuse in many forms, including slave-like working conditions.

Investigating the 111 cases of returning female workers in August, the government found that 35 percent of them were victims of sexual, and physical abuse, while only 43 per cent received irregular wages.

The report identified 11 fundamental reasons why Bangladeshi migrant women fled their workplaces, including physical and sexual abuse, inadequate food, work without leave, and irregular salaries.

The report was submitted to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Expatriates Welfare and Overseas Employment ministry on September 26.

According to the Human Rights Watch Report 2019, domestic workers, predominantly women, faced a range of abuses, including overwork, forced confinement, non-payment of wages, food deprivation, and psychological, physical, and sexual abuse, while the authorities have failed to hold their employers accountable for such crimes.

According to Bureau of Manpower, employment and Training, over 53,000 female workers went to Saudi Arabia until the end of October this year.

More than 332,000 female workers have travelled to Saudi Arabia since 1991, but many of them returned home with stories of abuse and exploitation.

Migration experts said that that imposing a ban on the migration of women could not be the solution; rather it might have negative consequences affecting the overall labour migration scenario in Bangladesh. 

They observed that such restrictions on their mobility and employment would encourage undocumented migration of women workers and also increase human trafficking.

Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (BAIRA) secretary general Shameem Ahmed Chowdhury Noman told New Age that selection process of women migrant workers should be tightened in Bangladesh.

The selected women should be properly trained and they have to be prepared fit mentally, physically for overseas migration.

He also said that employers should be made accountable for ill-treatment of their domestic helps.

‘BAIRA is set to take a step to enlist pre-mature return of female migrants who were forced to return because of genuine ill-treatment of the employers. They should be compensated and their employers should be blacklisted,’ he said. 

Foreign Affairs ministry director general Nazrul Islam said that most of the exploitations happened in the Middle East countries and rest of the destinations were comparatively better for the country’s female workers.

Only Bangladeshi women become victims of abuse and tortures as they have no means to protect themselves against violence, he said.

We have not heard of women from the Philippines and Sri Lanka falling victim of exploitation abroad, he said.

He further added that about 75 women migrants complained about their employees depriving them of their staple – ‘rice’ in the Arab countries.

Officials in Bangladesh Embassy said that about 13,000 women workers were sent back home in the last four years.

BRAC Migration Programme provided emergency supports to 2,500 returnee female workers, said its head Shariful Islam Islam Hasan

Last year around 1,300 female workers came back to Bangladesh from Saudi Arabia because of the inhuman working conditions there, he told New Age.

‘After they came back, they reported of mental, physical and sexual abuse,’ he said.

Bangladesh’s ministry of expatriates, which previously denied allegations of sexual abuse of female workers in Saudi Arabia, also admitted the abuse of its workers this September.

A government report said many women who went to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to work as domestic helps returned after sexual and other kinds of abuse.

Of the 111 women who returned to Bangladesh from Saudi Arabia on August 26, 38 were physically or sexually abused and 48 others were deprived of their salary and allowances, according to the report.

In early November, foreign minister AK Abdul Momen downplayed the number of deaths and the degree of exploitation of Bangladeshi female migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, claiming that the number was rather “small”.

‘There are some 2.5 lakh to 3 lakh women working in the KSA. How many of them have died?’ he asked journalists who raised the issue of women domestic workers facing physical, mental and sexual abuses in the Kingdom.

A worker helps another to stand up as she returned home with an injured leg. These photos were taken in September this year. — Sourav Lasker

A research by Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program on 110 abused female migrant returnees from the KSA found that 61 per cent were physically abused, 14 per cent were sexually abused, 86 per cent did not receive their full salaries and 24 per cent were deprived of food.

The civil society organisations have asked the Bangladesh government to take up at the technical working group meeting with Saudi Arabia the issue of exploitations and abuses suffered by the female domestic workers in Saudi Arabia for developing a legal framework for the protection of the victims.

Bangladesh-Saudi Arabia technical working group met in Riyadh on November 26 and discussed the issues of Bangladeshi migrant workers especially, domestic workers, said the officials.

Though Saudi Arabia is recruiting domestic workers from Bangladesh under a memorandum of understanding signed in 2015, female domestic workers of Bangladesh frequently returned home as victims of sexual abuse, torture and others exploitations.

EWOE ministry secretary Salim Reza said that steps should be taken to ensure the country’s female workers’ safety abroad.

He said that recruiting agencies of Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia would be made accountable for the sufferings of female migrant workers.

Bangladesh Civil Society for Migration on Tuesday urged the Bangladesh government to keep open labour migration to Saudi Arabia and gradually improve the systems to ensure protection of the women workers.

BCSM chair Syed Saiful Haque told New Age that the government should boost monitoring in the destination countries, especially in the KSA, through Bangladesh missions.

In a long run, he said that the government should take steps to groom skilled women workers before sending them overseas.

Academics, migrant rights campaigners, recruiting agents and grassroots organisers urged the Bangladesh government to protect the female domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.

In the recommendations the CSOs urged the Bangladesh government to review the issue of exploitations and abuses suffered by the female domestic workers in Saudi Arabia for developing a legal framework to protect the female migrant workers.

According to the research conducted by our organisation Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP), it shows that the ministry was the third-lowest recipient of all ministries in the 2018-2019 national budgets. Of the total allocation of the ministry’s budget, only 0.088 per cent was allocated for development programmes.

Undertaking comprehensive protection measures for the workers abroad should be a priority for the Bangladesh government. This will require increasing resources and quality of services in the labour wings, ensuring fair recruitment as well as redress.

What is urgently needed is to be mindful that Bangladeshi migrant workers earn around USD 15 billion every year, which boosts Bangladesh’s economy significantly.

OKUP chairman Shakirul said that ‘We expect that the concerned ministry will take immediate measures to ensure and increase the protection of migrant workers, especially female workers, instead of placing an ill-advised restriction or ban on their migration.’ 

Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment Policy in 2016 guaranteed establishing a rights-based protection system in all four stages of migration: pre-departure, departure, post-arrival, and upon return.

Unfortunately, he said that there has been little implementation of these laws and policies. The recruitment of Bangladeshi workers for overseas job remains quite unfair and unethical.

In such a context, women migrant workers of Bangladesh often become victims of abuse, exploitation and rights violation in the migration cycle. Such abuse and exploitation have critical negative effects on both the women and their families which might result in creating social and financial burdens for the country.

Unfortunately, there are little protection measures for the workers aboard. Only 30 officials are appointed in two “labour wings” in a huge country like Saudi Arabia, serving around 2.5 million Bangladeshi workers.

Compared to other ministries, the government allocates little budget for the Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment, said Shakirul.

Bangladesh parliamentarians’ caucus on migration and development chairman Israfil Alam MP on Tuesday said that women should be sent abroad after ensuring their protections.

He proposed to open shelter homes in the Saudi Arabia for the country’s women workers to spend night as the employer home was not safe for them.

Dhaka University professor and Refugee and Migrating Movements Research Unit founding chair Tasneem Siddiqui said that female migration should not be banned from Bangladesh.

As male migration is not stopped for malpractice, so female migration should continue, she said, adding that steps should be taken to ensure their protection abroad.

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