THE gross violation of migrant worker rights in destination countries, particularly the exploitation of women worker, is deeply disconcerting given the contribution that they make to the national economy. In four years, as a BRAC report says, 500 women workers died abroad and about 12,000–15,000 workers reported various forms of exploitation, including sexual assault. The findings are supported by other civil society organisations including Bangladesh Nari Sramik Kendra and Abhibasi Karmi Unnayan Programme. In 2019, the expatriate welfare and overseas employment ministry investigated 111 cases of premature return of women migrant workers and found that 35 per cent of them were victims of physical torture and sexual violence and 43 per cent received wages irregularly. In March, New Age has interviewed 35 women who had recently returned from Middle Eastern countries and they all reported financial exploitation, excessive workload, inadequate access to food along with physical torture and sexual violence. None but one worker has received any justice so far. As the labour wing of Bangladesh missions in destination countries are generally indifferent and there is no international legal instrument to address such cases of cross-border violation of labour rights, justice still remains a far cry.
Although the migrants who return routinely report abuse, the government still does not have a comprehensive record of labour rights violation. It does not either have a proper mechanism that could create avenues for workers to claim their unpaid wage and compensation for death and injury at work. The director of the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training has blamed the workers ‘unwilling to cooperate with the government’ for the situation. In reality, as migrant worker rights activists say, it is the unsympathetic labour wings of Bangladesh missions and a complex bureaucracy that makes justice and compensation nearly unattainable for workers. The harrowing experience of the families of deceased workers in repatriating the bodies to Bangladesh says how unfriendly the system is towards the migrants. In 2018, the ministry concerned visited Saudi Arabia to have a first-hand account of worker situations and recommended that the smart cards issued by the BMET should also include information on Saudi recruitment agencies and employer details. They recommended making it obligatory for the recruitment agencies in Bangladesh to inform the government of any worker crisis. The recommendations remained unimplemented and exploitation continued unabated.
Labour migration is a cross-border issue and any labour rights violation within this transnational labour supply chain needs to be addressed through international diplomacy. The government must immediately bring the issue of workers abuse in Middle Eastern countries to the attention of international bodies including the Colombo Process, Bali Process and Abu Dhabi dialogue. It must initiate a diplomatic dialogue with Saudi Arabia and other countries so that the authorities there take the issue of worker rights violation seriously and penalise abusive employers. The ministry concerned and the labour wings in destination countries must also develop a protocol and grievance mechanism to attend to the need of workers in crisis.
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