The Daily Star (TDS): How would you evaluate Saudi Arabia's lifting of the 6-year ban on hiring Bangladeshi workers and the Domestic Services Workers' Recruitment agreement signed on Feb 10?
Tasnim Siddiqui (TS): I think it is good news that after a long break Saudi Arabia has reopened its manpower market for Bangladesh. But the agreement was signed only for recruiting female workers who will work in households. In fact, the KSA had never closed its market for our female workers. Our government could have sent them during this period.
I would have been happy if KSA had opened its market for our men as well, because the main market for Bangladeshi workers there is for males. But no agreement was signed for recruiting our male workers, even for working in the domestic sector. The government should have made this clear in its statements. As it didn't, a large number of job-seekers thronged the expatriate welfare ministry to register their names with the BMET right after the agreement was signed.
TDS: The ban was lifted on condition that Dhaka would not send nationals with criminal records to Riyadh. What measures can the government take to ensure that only legal Bangladeshi workers are recruited?
TS: When Saudi Arabia closed its market for Bangladeshi workers, they complained that the workers they sent back to Bangladesh because of their involvement in criminal activities were reentering the country with different names and passports. The government can do a lot to solve this problem. First, it should not allow anyone to go to the KSA without biometric passport (MRP). The problem is, in our country, a person can simply conceal the fact that he has a normal passport and apply for a new biometric passport. So relying on MRP alone will not solve the problem. What we can do is send the Saudi government the list of people we have decided to send there. They can check if those names are in their criminal list. Or we can request them to send us the list. The BMET should take the responsibility to check this before giving clearance to our workers. They can make a database of people who are coming back to Bangladesh on out-pass by collecting the records from our airports. The database should include their photos and signatures. At the same time, the private recruiting agencies should also take some responsibility. If any recruiting agency is found guilty of sending persons illegally, the government should not allow that agency to send workers the next year.
TDS: As more of our female migrants would work as maids and housekeepers, there is increased risk of exploitation, including sexual assault. What can our embassy do in this regard?
TS: We sent very few female workers to KSA in the past. Now that we have decided to send female workers there, we have to be well prepared. I talked to some private recruiting agencies and came to know that they were sending workers without any preparation.
Our workers will work not only in Ryadh also but in some remote places of that country. As 10,000 workers will go per month, the government needs to build at least 20/30 shelter homes in the provinces of Saudi Arabia where our female migrant workers will work. To run those, we will need manpower. There are many Bangladeshi professionals working in the KSA. Their wives and children can be recruited on the basis of merit to work in these shelter homes. There are people who may agree to volunteer. India has established service centres for migrant workers outside their embassies in the KSA and other countries. They even deliver passports through those offices on weekends. Our female migrant workers usually run away when they face any type of harassment inside the households and eventually fall victims to traffickers. If they know that there are shelter homes, they will go there in such situations.
The government should also make legal preparations, and appoint lawyers. If any worker comes to the shelter home and complains of physical or sexual harassment by her employer, our lawyer can file a case against the employer and fight the case in the court. After the disposal of the case, the worker can switch to another job. According to Saudi rules, an employee has the right to change her place of employment if she is mistreated by the employer. So, it will be against the interest of our workers if we send them to KSA before establishing shelter homes and appointing the manpower to run them.
Furthermore, all workers should be provided with a mobile phone. The government must ensure that the Saudi employers will let them use mobile phones. Establishing a hotline would also be very helpful through which workers would be able to contact us and talk about their problems in Bangla. The government should talk to our workers at least once a month to make sure that they are doing alright. To get this access, our government has to establish an institutional mechanism.
TDS: India, the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka have set several terms and conditions, including minimum wages and better working conditions. Why couldn't Bangladesh negotiate for higher pay and better working conditions?
TS: The government should have included some experts in the team who have negotiation skills. You don't get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate. We could have negotiated for higher salary if our workers were well trained. As we did not provide our workers with skills training or language training, we had to agree to what they offered us. The training the government usually provides to our workers is theoretical, not practical. They don't even teach them how to use the electronic gadgets they will have to use frequently. Then there is corruption. Also, there are instances of misappropriation of the fund allocated for training programmes.
TDS: Jobs in Saudi Arabia are mainly short-term with specific contracts and workers have to return home after its expiry. Are there any chances of job extensions?
TS: Saudi Arabia will not let any worker stay for more than six years, because if they do, the issue of citizenship will arise. Basically, our workers will go on two to three years' contract. In Saudi Arabia, the employers can renew the contracts if they want. But I don't know whether our government knows about this.
TDS: According to the Saudi government, around 200,000 Myanmar nationals entered the KSA with Bangladeshi passports over the past 20 years. Is that so?
TS: This assertion has no basis whatsoever. Whenever the Saudi government raises any allegation of criminal activities against our workers, the government blames it on Rohingyas right away. Some Rohingyas may have gone to the KSA with Bangladeshi passports, but this has happened because of the government's failure and corruption. Those passports were sold by people from within the embassy. What actions were taken against those embassy officials? What the embassy should do is develop a system where all information about the Bangladeshi migrant workers, including names, passport numbers, village addresses, etc will be recorded. This can be done but needs a lot of effort on the part of the government.
The Rohingyas do not have an official identity. By giving Rohingyas 'refugee' status, their assimilation into Bangladeshi society can be prevented and the means to obtain a Bangladeshi passport will not be as easy.