What is killing our migrant workers abroad?
The unnaturally high number of Bangladeshi migrant workers who die in Gulf countries and return to us as corpses is too often swept under the rug. A report published by this daily on Sunday, to mark International Migrants Day, has revealed that the bodies of at least 45,301 male and female migrant workers arrived in the country between 2008 and June of this year. Among the six destination countries – Saudi Arabia (KSA), United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar – a staggering 12,930 deaths have taken place in Saudi Arabia alone. While the deaths of migrant workers in Qatar have been highlighted as a human rights issue over the past month, given the country's lavish hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup using infrastructures largely built by migrant workers, other Gulf countries must also receive their share of the criticism.
The question that is foremost in our minds is: how do so many Bangladeshi workers die in these destination countries? While a few workers die by suicide or are killed, the causes of death mentioned most often – as per documents that accompany their bodies – are strokes and heart diseases, alongside workplace accidents. The curious thing is that a large portion of those who have died of strokes were young, or at most middle-aged. Unfortunately, there have been no attempts to investigate and publicise the underlying causes of migrant worker deaths by the host countries.
Given the degree of reporting on the issue over the years and the narratives of migrant workers and their families, it is no secret that the working and living environments in destination countries are horrid. Not only are temperatures much higher than in Bangladesh, the work hours can extend to 12 or even 18 hours, while workers are always under pressure to send enough money home, leaving no opportunity for them to have enough rest – let alone any leisure. Given the lack of enforcement of any workers' rights, most Bangladeshis are also forced to do risky, often life-threatening jobs. Not to mention how badly some workers are treated, especially women migrants who work informal jobs in homes, becoming victims of verbal, physical, and/or sexual abuse, or even murder.
Ultimately, it all boils down to the fact that Bangladeshis and workers from other origin countries are severely exploited by the Gulf states. The lack of transparency on the destination countries' part regarding worker treatment, coupled with the lack of enthusiasm of origin countries to hold them accountable has resulted in Bangladeshi migrant workers having to earn their bread in inhumane conditions, away from everything they know and everyone they love. Unfortunately, it is often seen that Gulf countries hold a higher ground as they can choose to take in more workers from other countries if one origin country imposes stricter conditions for their citizens.
We demand that Bangladeshi authorities at home and in destination countries prioritise the lives of migrant workers. These are the people on whose labour and remittances our economy is dependent. So why is their well-being not given the utmost importance? The sight of families receiving the bodies of their loved ones, who have died in destination countries while trying to provide them with a steady income, needs to stop being a regular thing.