WOMEN migrant workers have been reporting physical, sexual and mental torture for long. A recent increase in suicide rate among them paints an even alarming picture. According to the BRAC Migration Programme, one in every three deaths of female migrant workers, mostly in the Middle East, is a suicide. The other two of every three deaths are also unnatural, caused by stroke and accidents. In January 2016–June 2019, at least 311 female migrant workers were brought home dead; among them, 53 committed suicides, 120 suffered stroke and 56 died in accidents, the BRAC study says. Migration experts, rights activists and migrants who have returned have time and again said that stress from overwork, low wage, a poor living condition, sexual and physical abuse lead them to commit suicide and leave women migrant workers vulnerable to stroke-related deaths. The activists have for long been urging the government to take effective steps to address the issue, but, it seems, to no avail as the country keeps receiving body bags of female migrant workers and more than 100 of them return home every month on an average having faced various kinds of torture by their employers abroad, as the Wage Earners’ Welfare Board says.
The Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training shows that the number of female migrant workers has swelled over the years — 118,088 in 2016, 83,354 in 2017 and 73,713 in 2018 — and have contributed significantly to the inflating remittances. Majority of the women migrants went to different Middle Eastern countries, especially in Saudi Arabia, to work as domestic workers. But most of them are subjected to different forms of abuse and exploitation at the hands of their employers. Under an extremely unfavourable working condition, more than 900 women workers, according to the Wage Earners’ Welfare Board, returned home in the first eight months of 2019. Working in an unfavourable socio-cultural environment and unable to communicate in local languages, they remain the most vulnerable section of the labour force abroad. They cannot even seek help from local authorities or rights organisation as their passports are often confiscated. It is common that employers or recruiting agents in destination countries confiscate passports of migrant workers on arrival. To prevent them from fleeing, the employer also withhold wages for long periods which amounts to forcing them into bonded labour. For such reasons, Indonesia and the Philippines in 2015 stopped sending their women workers to Saudi Arabia. The Bangladesh consulate in Saudi Arabia has also reportedly made similar recommendations, but no action to that effect has been taken.
The government must, under the circumstances, step up its efforts to ensure safety and rights of women migrant workers and secure binding bilateral agreements with destination countries. At the same time, the government and the agencies concerned, including Bangladeshi missions in destination countries, must monitor labour rights and offer assistance to migrant workers when necessary.