Crew members in flights to/from Dhaka are known for being notoriously rude, especially in routes that carry our migrant workers. The attendants in these flights bring out their ring-master selves to harness the feral passengers. Meanwhile, passengers with relatively proper flying experiences pretend to be a class apart, albeit sitting in the same coach. They display their discomfort at being unwilling witnesses to various Tom-and-Jerry episodes featuring the native sons and the club-bouncer-like flight-staff. This “gentry” class maintaining their proper flying etiquette cover their eyes to sleep or indulge in TV screens to disown the ongoing action as well as the perky participants. This ambivalence points out one national dilemma: we are ashamed of the mannerism of a class that lacks proper skills and education, yet we are proud of the remittances they earn to improve the financial health of our country.
Our unskilled migrant workers are employed abroad as “cheap” labour in sectors where the locals are not interested. The nationals of host countries may feel that these jobs given to the foreigners are dirty, dangerous, or of low status with poor payment. With an unemployment rate of near 4.4 percent, we want our workers to work abroad and generate remittances to spur consumer spending and boost our forex reserves. We want these workers to maintain and improve the 7 percent contributions to our GDP, bringing in a deposit of USD 15.54 billion in our treasury in 2018 (RMMRU Report). While we like these numerical figures, we have little sympathy as a nation for the human figures who take part in this number game. Somehow, the dehumanisation of our workers begin at home, even before they are sent abroad. This convoluted mind-set is responsible for an oxymoron: our prize commodity relies on cheap labour. This attitude, for me, is a part of the chronic problem related to the abuse of migrant workers; news of which is haunting our media in the shape of mutilated and muted bodies.
Every day, we are hearing new stories of torture and abuse. One woman has been rescued from a middle-eastern country after she made a heart-wrenching plea in a video clip that went viral. Her employers have burnt private parts of her body by pouring hot oil. This is an example of the level of hostility, cruelty and perversion that our workers face overseas. Other female migrant workers who have recently returned are giving us similar harrowing accounts. BBC and Al Jajeera have aired stories on what they dubbed as the Modern Day Slavery, where female workers are sold on Google or Android Apps. Soon after the arrival of an employee, their work-permits are sold through online auction, and the employee is passed on from one house to another like ping pong without her knowledge. One study conducted by the Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment (MEWOE) found 35 percent of our female workers have been sexually abused. On the other hand, the bodies of some 38,473 deceased migrant workers have been received since 2005, according to Wage Earners’ Welfare Board.
Recently, an insensitive comment by a minister who tried to downplay the severity of the issue by rationalising the casualty ratio as extreme examples drew severe criticism. Compare this to the Filipino president who decided to ban sending of migrant workers following the death of seven domestic workers in Kuwait. There are mixed views about banning export of labour force. After all, migrants are perceived as agents of change. They contribute to the socio-economic development by the transfer of financial and human resources towards their native communities. The knowledge and technological know-hows acquired by migrant workers during their stay abroad become an asset for their native country. And ban will simply encourage the illegal market of human trafficking. So we need to fix the headache, rather than chopping of the proverbial head. To meet the problem head-on, we need to bring in the heart. What is missing is the empathy to stand by our workers.
In other words, the problem, if you ask me, is that of a mind-set. First, we need to respect our nationals as citizens before we value them in monetary terms as wage earners. Anyone who has passed through our international airport must have noticed how our immigration officers, security guards, airlines officials belittle our migrant workers at every available opportunity. The humiliation with which the agencies process and parcel the workers speak of the treatments that await them at their work destination. If we can’t stand by our own nationals, how can we expect others to do so?
I remember in one flight, a family traveling with a small child could not figure out how the toilet worked, and the little boy relieved himself on the floor. The whole plane was soon filled with a pungent smell, and one crew forced the father to clean the filth. She was fuming standing next to me, saying, “If they can pay hundreds of dollars for their tickets then why can’t they pay a few more for a diaper.” “You need to understand that they have probably come from the village, and this is the first time they are on a plane,” I hurled a mild explanation. “How difficult it is to distinguish a hole from the floor when you are in a toilet?” I had no answer. I did feel that before we send our men abroad we need to give them a proper orientation. Looking back, I feel that I did not own up my fellow passenger. A child is a child, and is beyond adult scrutiny.
Having said that we also need to devise a system that gives the workers pre-departure and post-arrival support service. In the Philippines, during Christmas, I was surprised to see especial dance arranged for returning workers. They were given the welcome as national heroes. Here, these returning workers are treated as easy victims whose gullibility could be exploited. Those who have faced traumatic experiences are given psychological support (BRAC has some programmes in limited scope). The labour attachés in our embassies must be more pro-active in being protective of our citizens. Since not sending is an option, let us at least prepare our workers for the best and the worst that their travels entail.
Shamsad Mortuza is Professor of English, University of Dhaka. Currently on leave, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org