The woes of our migrant workers | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 03, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, August 03, 2008

By the Numbers

The woes of our migrant workers

THE unwarranted violence and arrest of our migrant workers by the Kuwaiti police for staging strikes in demand of promised pay and other facilities, is an extremely shocking piece of news. This was front-page news on The Daily Star and other national dailies on July 31, accompanied by a picture of a deported worker in bandages and wearing a bloodstained T-shirt, who was reported to be dragged out of his residential camp and was mercilessly beaten up by the police though he did not take part in any protests.
Around 5,000 Bangladeshi workers went on an indefinite strike in Kuwait City as of July 21, protesting underpayment and a lack of provision of other facilities promised by their employer. The Kuwaiti police arrested about 1,000 workers on the charge of instigating labour unrest and went so far as to deport more than 200 workers. Those who are arrested but not yet deported await a similar fate.
These Bangladeshi workers provide the most essential menial labour, like cleaning in the royal palaces, hospitals, oil companies, universities and other important establishments under the ministries of health, oil, education and defence of the government of Kuwait.
But the companies that placed them in such hazardous jobs pay only 18 Kuwaiti dinars a month, instead of the 50 dinars they were promised at the time of recruitment. Moreover, the company has not paid two months' wages to a good number of workers, who did not even receive a weekly holiday.
One of the most unfortunate aspects of this episode was that the labour counsellors at the Bangladesh Mission in Kuwait, who were supposed to redress the grievances of Bangladeshi workers, hardly came forward to help the victims. Bangladeshi workers in Kuwait stormed our embassy last year, since embassy officials did not intervene on behalf of their countrymen even after realising they had been cheated out of five months of wages by their Kuwaiti employer.
These gross violations of migrant workers' rights have not been going on in Kuwait alone, but also in some other countries including Malaysia, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Bangladeshi workers are now in 100 countries across the world, and most prominently in Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore, Maldives, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Libya, Lebanon, Germany, Australia, Iran, Japan, Italy, and Spain. They are mostly engaged in various hazardous occupations and their rights are frequently denied.
The criminal conduct of a Bangladeshi worker in Bahrain, who killed his Bahraini employer following a dispute over wages, prompted Manama in taking a harsh decision of collective punishment to all Bangladeshi workers. The Bahraini government decided to stop issuing work permits to Bangladeshis or employing new Bangladeshi workers after some parliament members demanded that all Bangladeshi workers be expelled by the end of 2008.
Maldives, too, is a country where the rights of our migrant workers are violated often, a county of only 300,000 people, where more than 25,000 Bangladeshi workers provide essential cheap manual labour in the tourism and construction sectors. Our migrant workers faced a number of attacks a few months ago in different parts of the Maldives and a worker was even found tied to tree by his employer for nine days while another worker was castrated and murdered.
Thousands of Bangladeshi undocumented workers in the United Arab Emirates faced acute problems while trying to either regularise their immigration status or to leave the country under a three-month amnesty that ended on September 2 last year.
More than five lakh Bangladeshi workers are now working in the UAE and many of them are victims of exploitation and breach of contract. The UAE, that needs more workers for its huge construction industry, has recently signed an MoU with many manpower exporting countries, including Bangladesh, in a bid to ensure rights of foreign workers.
There are widespread allegations that our missions abroad are rarely concerned about our migrant workers, even when they cry out for help. The labour counsellors, who are posted there to act promptly to redress the grievances of our migrant workers, treat them very poorly. A greater responsibility thus develops on the caretaker government for protecting the rights of our nearly five million migrant workers, on whose sweat the basket of the country's foreign currency is inflating.
A big misery of our migrant workers is that they get lower salaries than the same category of workers of other countries. An unskilled Bangladeshi worker in Middle East countries gets 300 to 400 riyals per month on average, while workers from Sri Lanka, Philippines and Pakistan get 700 to 800 riyals. Malpractices by the manpower recruiting agencies and a lack of strong monitoring by the government are said to be responsible for it.
Everybody will clearly remember the tragic death of 11 Bangladeshi job-seekers who died starving day-after-day on the sea while trying to cross the Mediterranean; we shall also remember the 24 job-seekers who were abandoned in the deep Sahara desert where they wandered for several days without any food and drink and were thrown into jail in Mali after police rescued them from the desert.
Enraged by the Mediterranean and Sahara tragedies, the government decided to take stern actions against the unscrupulous manpower agents, who allured the youngsters with the promise of a better livelihood abroad. Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment Ministry formed two separate committees to identify manpower agents involved in such rackets, but the activism lost its intensity as the days wore on and public outrage over the tragedies died down.
The woes of thousands of our migrant workers in the Middle East are extremely shocking for us. Large numbers of workers, deported from Kuwait bloodstained and empty-handed, have once again brought to light the terrible torture and difficulties they face in foreign lands. Our migrant workers are always subjected to many kinds of harassment and exploitation at the hands of their foreign employers. But our government in general and the missions abroad in particular are not at all sincere in redressing the woes our migrant workers.
Foreign and Expatriate Welfare Adviser Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury had told the media that the government would sign a protocol with 16 different countries for protecting the rights of our migrant workers employed in those countries. One and a half years have already elapsed and we have yet to see any development.
We urge the government to immediately ratify the 1990 UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families. This is the first international document that provides assurance to the rights of the migrant workers. And though Bangladesh signed the convention in October 1998, we have yet to ratify it.

A.N.M. Nurul Haque is a columnist of The Daily Star.

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