Our women migrant workers must be protected
Try as we might to reconcile the two trends in Bangladesh's development story, one consistently positive and the other indicative of a lack of distributive justice, we may fail to make the pieces of the puzzle fit, and therefore, marvel at it as a "miracle" development.
There are two patterns in the performance scorecard that don't mesh. On the one side, we have had improving socioeconomic indicators projecting a shiny sheen in the region; even the HDI ranking notched up by two points. Demand-driven economic dynamism is a robust sign of maturity. On the other hand, we see default and land-grabbing cultures, not to mention flight of capital robbing us of what could have been yet more substantial GDP growth.
The size of our GDP is respectably high and the annual budget has been "overambitious", if not oversized, as is borne out by slower-than-expected implementation rate in the first quarter. The GDP growth rate is posted above seven percent, and the big head-turner is our topping the list in terms of rapid acquisition of wealth. Even the US and China have been surpassed by this acquisition criterion.
What stand in stark contrast to such achievements are the tales of horrific physical indignity, mental torture and rude repatriation of an increasing number of Bangladeshi migrant workers from the Middle East back home. But in spite of all these stories reportedly coming out of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, etc, women workers keep going to the Middle East through legal or illegal channels. They are even landing in Libya and Syria in search of household jobs. But going through the mill of repression and various forms of indignities amounting to human rights violations, they soon become desperate to return home via a "safe house" or "shelter home", if they are lucky to get to one. Insensitive to human values, the employers treat women not as human beings but as commodities or mere chattels to be bandied about in a medieval-age fashion.
Firstly, these women are human beings. Secondly, they have brought their minds to be working as domestic aids. And last but not least, they opted for a harsh climate compared to a home environment. So they deserve all the civility and consideration that a host should be capable of.
Countries like the Philippines, Nepal and Sri Lanka had stopped sending their women nationals to work as housemaids in the Middle East. In 2011, a parliamentary delegation from the Philippines brought up the fact that repression in Saudi Arabia of women workers happened with routine regularity.
According to the statistics of Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET), from January 1991 to April 2018 some 7,35,575 female workers were sent to the Middle East of which 2,34,831 went to Saudi Arabia alone. But Saudi Arabia, the principal destination for manpower export from Bangladesh, raising allegations of irregularities, lack of professionalism, commission of crimes and violation of local laws, put a lid on worker migration in 2008. The authorities arrested many "illegal immigrants" on that occasion.
However, three years on in 2011, the Saudis took a U-turn proposing intake of women workers from Bangladesh free of cost. This was purportedly done on an unwritten understanding that male workers will be taken conditional upon sending in female workers. Accordingly, Bangladesh resumed sending women workers to Saudi Arabia. Subsequently, the Saudi government withdrew the restriction on male workers. Between 2015 and 2017, 1,72,592 Bangladeshis had gone to Saudi Arabia, of them 3,339 returned to the country. The latest figure for returnees is 5,000.
The cumulative figures of wage earners and returnees from their workplaces as well as those languishing in safe homes or jails to be repatriated should be made known to the public. Also it is important that we get a move on to create and update a data bank in our missions abroad on workers entering into and exiting from a host country. Without such inputs in place no effective policy formulation is possible.
The importance of migrant workers is underlined by the fact that though "underpaid and overworked, domestic workers perform services essential for many households to function and to allow others to participate in the formal economy."
Actually, the IOM and ILO as organisations and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families as instrumentalities will have harnessed for a benign impact on migration.
The nine causes cited for the growing ranks of returnees are homesickness, food habits, language problem, transport difficulty, lack of physical fitness, excessive work pressure, work at more than one place, verbal abuse and physical torture.
The question is, why send them out with such problems? While we do the grooming part, it will be of little avail if workers will be subjected to verbal and physical abuses which fall on the part of hosts to correct and reform.
In the end, as a country championing gender equality and women's empowerment, we must execute zero tolerance to undermining our women. Mistreatment of them is tantamount to an affront to us.
Shah Husain Imam is Adjunct Faculty, East West University, a commentator on current affairs, and former Associate Editor, The Daily Star.