MIGRANT workers, with little to no legal protection, contribute to the national economy making remittance as the second-largest source of foreign earnings for Bangladesh. It is gravely concerning that, as speakers at a national consultation meeting on migration and development on Saturday said, the migrants or labour unions have no representation at the policy level decision making process. The meeting organised by WARBE Foundation with the support of Solidarity Centre discussed the importance of the involvement of trade unions in negotiating the terms and conditions of global migration. A proper representation of migrants and trade unions, as the speakers suggest, would open avenues for workers to voice their concern and its absence has created a situation in which unscrupulous recruitment agencies are exploiting migrants at home and abroad. In a time of crisis, as was evidenced during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when workers were faced with various kind of uncertainty, trade unions could have been the link between the aggrieved workers and the government. Therefore, the proposal to include trade unions in the labour migration sector is one that the government should seriously consider.
Migrant workers has for long been asking for a mechanism to communicate their concerns and report the violation of labour rights and its need became prominent during the pandemic when workers suddenly lost job or were left stranded in foreign land. About 400,000 Bangladeshi migrants returned home, mostly empty-handed, since March last year, while many of those who had come home on leave remained stranded. In September 2020, workers with valid work permit and visa for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia took to streets in the capital as the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh failed to make a timely decision about the international operation of commercial flights from Dhaka to various destinations in Saudi Arabia. At the time, many aggrieved workers complained that, in the absence of a mechanism to raise their collective concern, they were forced to deal with airline companies on an individual basis. In the cases of repatriating the dead body of workers from abroad, securing compensation, addressing sexual violence or other forms of exploitation of workers in destination countries, family members struggle as there is no forum of collective bargain. Trade unions could be an effective link between the Wage Earners and Welfare Board, the labour wing of Bangladesh consulates and authorities in destination countries.
The government, under the circumstances, must consider the proposal of involving the trade unions in negotiating the labour rights of migrants and sit with all stakeholders to ensure workers representation in the decision making process. The government should work with international bodies including the International Labour Organisation and diplomatically engage with other nations that export labour and advocate for a legal mechanism through which a just cross-border labour relation can be achieved.
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