A PROMPT action on part of the government is still absent to end the plight of Bangladeshi migrant workers in Saudi Arabia. After public protests and a heated debate in the parliament over the inhuman treatment of workers in the destination country, the Prime Minister’s Office in January prepared a report saying that more than 7.5 lakh workers live in Saudi Arabia in fear of arrest and deportation. It also says that a half of more than 15 lakh workers there lost their job after their work permit had expired, leaving them undocumented. In January, the Saudi authority sent back more than 5,500 workers. A worker who spent about Tk 3 lakh on migration returned home on Sunday empty-handed after spending days in a foreign jail. Many like him return home battered and exploited. The expatriate welfare and overseas employment secretary seeks to say that they were unaware of any such report. It is welcome that the Prime Minister’s Office has finally prepared a comprehensive report, with a clear directive to attend to the sufferings of the workers Saudi Arabia, but no decisive action has so far been taken to ensure their smooth repatriation.
Saudi Arabia, the largest destination for Bangladeshi workers, reopened its market in 2015 after a break of seven years. But Saudi Arabia is reducing its dependence on foreign workers. In the context of a dwindling global oil market and its immediate impact on the Saudi economy, the government there has decided to increase its revenue earnings, including a significant increase in the work permit renewal fees. The new fee structure and associated rules require migrant workers to pay a monthly fee deductible from their wages in work permit renewal fees. This fee was SR200 in 2018, which doubled in 2020. This fee structure left workers in a severe economic hardship as monthly wages of Bangladeshi workers generally range between SR600 and SR1,200. Workers are also exploited by unscrupulous recruiting agents and exploitative local employers in Saudi Arabia. It has been widely reported how women workers have been subjected to sexual violence at the hands of Saudi employers. The government has, in many of the reported cases of sexual abuse and torture, not been able to get female migrant workers to safety early enough.
It is important that all the authorities concerned should take immediate action to ensure that no Bangladeshi citizens do their time in foreign jails because of systemic negligence. In so doing, it must immediately take steps to implement the recommendation that the Prime Minister’s Office report has made, mainly, not sending workers through unscrupulous recruiting agencies and raising the issue of an increased work permit fee with the Saudi government. In order for the government to maintain remittances inflow, the Bangladesh mission in Saudi Arabia must have a detailed protocol to monitor worker rights violation and make intervention when needed. What is needed in time of such a crisis is a strong labour diplomacy so that workers are not subjected to premature return and they get damages in cases they need to return.
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