Migration experts, rights activists and returnee migrant workers have sought effective steps by the government to recover their unpaid wages from the destination countries.
They made the call at a programme organised to record the statements of wage theft victims by the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) at the National Press Club on Thursday.
Wage theft occurs when employers refuse or fail to pay wages owed to an employee by contract. Many of the migrant workers, who return home during the Covid-19 pandemic, have become victims of wage theft.
One such victim, Md Mizan from Cumilla, alleged that he came home in November 2019 on vacation after working for 11 years in Dubai as a tile painter. He was scheduled to return to the workplace in April 2020 but failed due to the Covid-19 closures.
Taking advantage of the situation, his employer sacked him without giving any reason and yet to pay his owed 19,200 dirhams (approx Tk5.30 lakh).
A number of male and female returnee migrant workers, who lost wages abroad, participated in the event seeking justice.
RMMRU Executive Director CR Abrar said wage theft has been continuing for many years now but it got serious when thousands of thousands of workers were compelled to return home during the pandemic due to job loss, nonpayment of wages and other causes.
"We should have collected data on wage theft to reclaim it in the future. Unfortunately, we have not done that yet," he said, urging the government to initiate the process soon.
Even though the Migrant Forum in Asia, surveying some 2,000 workers in five Asian countries, found that they left $19.2 million due payments at overseas workplaces, none of it was recovered, he said.
Around 5 lakh Bangladeshi migrants returned home during the pandemic, according to the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET).
Many of them lost their jobs permanently in the Middle East and were bound to return home losing wages.
Power and Participation Research Centre Executive Chairman Hossain Zillur Rahman said the economic contribution of migrant workers was discussed thoroughly but not the abuse and injustice they face on their way.
Pointing out that high migration costs, wage theft and impunity for criminals continued to increase such incidents, he urged the global community to come forward with the 'Covid Justice Fund for Migrants' to ensure wage justice.
Bangladesh Press Council Chairman Justice Md Nizamul Huq Nasim said, "Everyone is aware of the abuse towards migrant workers but all kept silent fearing to lose the labour market."
"We should overcome the fear and we must ensure workers' safety and interests first," he said, adding that the destination countries cannot avoid responsibilities.
Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua said migrant workers' human rights were violated in various ways. "Every day, 8-10 bodies were received in Bangladesh but the cause of their deaths is still unknown and the governments won't even try to know it," he said.
A 2021 study, jointly conducted by the Refugee and Migratory Movement Research Unit (RMMRU) and Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA), found that around 67.7% of returnee migrants did not receive due wages in the destination countries while 38.7% received reduced wages amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
On average, a returnee migrant lost over Tk1.79 lakh in wages and other entitlements in the workplace, the study found.