Returning with ailments

Migrant workers with health issues get little support as government doesn’t have data on them

Md Monir, a migrant worker, returned home from the United Arab Emirates with severe physical pain in June 2021.

The Munshiganj resident had been employed at a road-construction site in Dubai. He, along with his coworkers, used to load and unload heavy objects like stones weighing 30 to 50 kilos for 10 to 12 hours a day under the scorching desert sun.

"My [health] problems started because of such work," 52-year-old Monir told this newspaper. He started to feel the pain after the first month of work. It was mild in the beginning but started to worsen and at one point became unbearable, forcing him to return home after four months.

Whether Monir's health problems are associated with excessive workload depends on medical examination and scientific research. However, two studies suggest that low-paid migrant workers like him are exposed to different health hazards in the Gulf countries due to poor working and living conditions amid the harsh climate.

Between 2019 and 2021, Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (Okup) provided healthcare support to 228 returnee migrants. Thirty-seven percent, the highest, received support for back pain or joint pain, 32 percent for abdominal pain, 27 percent for leg pain, and 21 percent for a workplace injuries.

The Bangladesh government hardly addresses the health issues of migrant workers as it does not maintain comprehensive data on those returning home with ailments. However, Wage Earners' Welfare Board (WEWB) under the expatriates' welfare ministry maintains statistics of injured and ailing returnee migrants who get financial support from it.

Last year, WEWB provided such support to 383 returnee migrants.

Shakirul Islam, chairperson of Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (Okup), a community-based migrant workers' organisation in Bangladesh, said every ailing returnee migrant does not apply to the board and get support, as many are unaware of the service.

Between 2019 and 2021, Okup itself provided healthcare support to 228 returnee migrants.

Thirty-seven percent, the highest, received support for back pain or joint pain, 32 percent for abdominal pain, 27 percent for leg pain, and 21 percent for a workplace injuries.

Other mentionable ailments included fatty liver, diabetes, arthritis, cancer, and vision problems.

Shakirul said these returnees, nearly 80 percent of the workers who were employed in the Gulf developed health-related problems in host countries.

The Vital Signs Partnership (VSP), a group of organisations in five Asian migrant-source countries, including Bangladesh, published two reports last year on low-paid migrant workers' health challenges in six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries -- Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain.

These countries hired nearly 77.5 percent of Bangladesh's 1.48 crore workers between 1976 and January this year, according to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training.

The VSP reports point out that harsh climates such as excessive heat, coupled with abusive conditions adversely affect the health of low-paid migrant workers in the Gulf.

"Vaguely-worded exceptions" in labour laws allow employers in most Gulf countries to make migrant workers work 12 hours per day, as per one VSP report.

Prof CR Abrar, executive director of Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit, a partner organisation of VSP, said in a broad sense, the healthcare situation in the Gulf is very much against low-paid migrant workers.

Heat is a major problem for those working outdoors. Although big companies to some extent adhere to the summer hours working ban, an overwhelming bulk of employers are small ones, which do not abide by such heat-related scheduled hours, he said.

Abrar said low-paid migrant workers in the Gulf live in unhygienic, over-crowded accommodations, which can lead to different forms of ailments.

In many cases, low-paid migrant workers choose self-medication for non-emergency cases. They bring their medicines from home, as they find it hard to access formal healthcare services for such cases, he added.

He also said migrant workers in the Gulf are covered by so-called health insurance, which is "cheap and not good".

Okup chairperson Shakirul said at the start of their job, Bangladeshi workers undergo mandatory health screening in host countries. However, their health issues, later on, are largely ignored.

He said the government needs to negotiate with host countries to bring the Bangladeshi migrant workforce under "standard" health insurance coverage.

Contacted, WEWB Director General Hamidur Rahman said they are working to create a proper database on migrants returning home with health problems.

In principle, the board cannot provide healthcare support to migrants who are not registered with it, he told this newspaper.

The DG said they allocate budget to different labour wings at Bangladesh missions abroad for the welfare of migrant workers.  


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