Having faced abuses, at least 50 Bangladeshi women and 75 men returned home from Saudi Arabia on December 10—a historic day when the governments from across the globe signed a non-legally binding Global Compact on Migration in Marrakech, Morocco. The inter-governmental deal brokered by the UN speaks of safe, orderly and regular migration—features that were followed in the case of migration of the women to the Gulf. Yet, they had to return home penniless and with the trauma of abuse. This has been the case for hundreds and even thousands of female domestic migrant workers.
Allegations of these women migrant workers include physical, mental and sexual exploitation by their employers, and in some cases, by the labour agents who were responsible for their recruitment. There are other ways they are exploited: they are not paid their wages or given adequate food. Upon returning home, they face even more painful realities. There have been cases (as reported by this newspaper) of husbands not accepting their wives, migrant workers who were compelled to come back home after being sexually abused by their employers, some of them being pregnant as a result of rape. Others are rejected because they were unable to send home money. Unfortunately, till date, the Bangladesh authorities have not initiated rehabilitation or reintegration measures for such vulnerable migrants in society.
Many of the men who returned the same day said they had visas, but Saudi police detained them and eventually they were deported. Further inquiries revealed they had so-called “free visas” and were working in companies other than the ones that secured visas for them. So-called free visas are illegal, but have been in operation for decades thanks to unscrupulous employers, brokers and agents. An agent explained that employers secure approval of work visas from the authorities only to make money as they know visas were on high demand in the labour-sending countries like Bangladesh. Once the workers land in that country, they find their own jobs and pay certain amounts monthly or yearly to the sponsors just because they secured the visas and facilitate annual renewals, also in exchange for handsome amounts.
Now that Saudi Arabia is prioritising youths for jobs, those with free visas are being detained and deported on a regular basis. Even, the migrants with such visas themselves have been running businesses, which are now being banned. This is happening not only in Saudi Arabia, but in the whole Gulf region and Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia. This means higher number of migrants returning home before completing their contracts, while they pay recruitment fees as high as Tk 3-5 lakh. Such deportation is pushing them further into poverty.
Another news story that has made international headlines is one of forced labour and debt bondage being faced by Bangladeshi and Nepalese workers in Top Glove, the world's biggest medical glove-maker, in Malaysia. The Bangladeshi migrants told The Guardian that they had paid 18,000-20,000 ringgits (Tk 3.6 lakh to Tk 4 lakh) in recruitment fees to get the job, while Nepalese migrants paid up to 7,000 ringgits (Tk 1.4 lakh), which left them in huge debt.
Analysis of the three situations can provide a picture of how vulnerable migrant workers are and the level of insecurity they face. For the women migrants working in the Gulf, especially in Saudi Arabia, the risks are higher because they work indoors and are not covered by the local labour law. However, if any woman is raped by the employer, she has the right to go to the court. The reality, however, is that it is unlikely for a Bangladeshi woman worker, a foreigner in the country she works in, to have the resources or even the confidence to take her employer, a national of that country, to court. Thus the rapist or sexual predator goes scot-free and the woman migrant worker comes home, penniless and traumatised.
Officials of the Bangladesh's Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment have said that if the victims don't go to the court, the government can do nothing. While this may be the official situation, it is hardly an acceptable response as Bangladesh, as a state, must protect the rights of its citizens, especially when they are abroad and are less empowered. Expatriates' welfare ministry officials have over the years tried to deny the allegations made by the victims. Along with taking legal steps, Bangladesh must initiate strong diplomatic efforts to ensure that our women workers are treated with dignity and that their rights are protected.
The second issue—that of “free visa” also leads to exploitation of migrant workers. In the initial years of formal labour migration from Bangladesh beginning in 1976, migrants wouldn't pay any recruitment fees. However, as demands for overseas jobs rose, work visas in the Gulf or Southeast Asia became “tradable”, though it is totally illegal. Bangladesh authorities have totally failed over the last two decades to control recruitment fees because of the strong influence of the recruitment agents and brokers having political connections. The fact that Bangladeshi workers in Malaysian Top Glove factory are mired in debt bondage indicates the level of corruption both in Dhaka and Kuala Lumpur. Both debt bondage and free visa issues stem out of high recruitment fees. Interestingly, Bangladeshis pay the highest recruitment fees—whether it is for jobs in Malaysia, Qatar or Saudi Arabia. This leads to sheer economic and social, physical and psychological vulnerability.
Government officials tend to say the country has so much surplus labour force that demand for overseas job is very high. Therefore, migrants pay high recruitment fees. This argument is flawed. If one closely looks into how labour migration from Bangladesh and Malaysia was managed under the G2G Plus deal in the last two years, it will be clear how the transnational traders distorted the recruitment process and made the workers pay unnecessarily exorbitant fees.
Bangladesh government, which had proposed the Global Compact on Migration in the UN in 2016, has to prove that it cares for its migrant workers and their dignity, instead of being complicit in the corrupt practices, justifying it using demand-supply theory, which should be applicable to commodities, not humans. The Global Compact on Migration can provide theories of cooperation among countries, not enforce what is needed. It is the individual state that has to work for real change. Thus Bangladesh, which has nearly one crore citizens working abroad, needs to protect those for whom the state has invested heavily and whose remittances are a big part of our economic growth.
Porimol Palma is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.