Today marks the international day for migrant workers. It is a day not only to celebrate the contribution of women and men who go to distant lands, away from their family and loved ones for long periods of time, it is also a day of reckoning of how best we, as a nation, can protect and promote the rights of those workers. This becomes imperative, as the nation as a whole is beneficiary of their labour and promoting 'safe migration' is an avowed policy of the state.
Women constitute almost half of the international migrant labour force. After the gradual lifting of restrictions imposed on low skilled female labour migrants in Bangladesh, this flow has registered a marked increase in recent years. While efforts are under way to impart training on outbound female migrants, particularly those taking up employment as domestic workers (DWs), a lot needs to be done to ensure their protection. The DWs remain outside the ambit of the labour law of most receiving countries. The nature of their employment places them in isolation from the rest of the community, and exposes them to various types of vulnerabilities.
Testimonies of returnee female migrants at a recent RMMRU consultation on Social and Economic Costs of Migration inform that many had positive experiences that helped them bring about changes in the lives of their family members, particularly in improving the quality of children's education and health. On the contrary, there were also narratives of loneliness, lack of privacy, long working hours, non-payment and irregular payment of wages, as well as harrowing tales of verbal, physical and sexual abuse. Last month, one of the leading news channels of Bangladesh telecast a footage in which a Bengali speaking woman worker was forcibly taken out of a tailoring shop of a local market in one of the Gulf states and pushed into a SUV by a group of three, in all likelihood led by her local Arab employer. She came to the market seeking refuge where other Bangladeshi workers worked. No one came to her help as she was driven away in the vehicle against her will.
While there is a burgeoning demand for female migrants, particularly in the domestic help and care sectors in the Gulf states and South East Asian countries, onus lies on both the sending and receiving states to ensure that these workers are adequately protected, and live and work in decent conditions. It is in this context that UN Women has developed a Standard Terms of Employment (STOE) following an extensive consultative process of various stakeholders in different parts of Asia. The Migrant Forum in Asia helped the process of preparing the document. The STOE is the result of a review of existing employment contracts and bilateral labour agreements; a series of focus group discussions in both sending and receiving states; and a review of activities and outputs of various UN agencies including the ILO.
The relevance of STOE is crucial as migrant DWs are excluded from the labour laws of both sending and receiving countries. UN Women rightly highlights that through their status as migrant and as women they are “doubly vulnerable”. The agency further argues that as domestic work takes place in informal and private settings the importance of formalisation cannot be overemphasised. Adequate care has been taken so that employment contracts adhere to international standards of labour and human rights protection of women migrant domestic workers. The STOE is a handy tool for the sending states to ensure protection of female DWs. It also serves as a template for the private sector to ensure ethical recruitment of female DWs and a model for public policy advocacy for the migrant rights groups.
Although the STOE has been framed keeping the women DWs as the principal beneficiary, the document can be used as a reference for drawing up contracts for other sectors that employ both males and females. The STOE contains 20 articles that elaborate the rights and duties with regard to minimum employment conditions, legal protections and the wellbeing of workers. It addresses a wide range of issues. Included among them are accommodation, wages, holidays and rest periods, medical and accident insurance, travel expenses, maternity protection and termination of employment.
A few sending countries including the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka currently discourage migration of female DWs. As a result, the receiving states, including those in the Gulf, face major challenges to source such workers. It is in this context that Bangladesh should earnestly consider the issue of safety and dignity of its female migrant workers and thus negotiate the terms from a position of strength. Every effort must be made so that the workers are deployed under bilateral agreements and STOE is incorporated in such agreements so that the provisions are enforceable in the countries of employment.
The writer teaches International Relations at the University of Dhaka. He coordinates the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU).