- Wages unpaid to 67% migrants who involuntarily returned in pandemic
- 62% of these returnees left behind assets
- More workers with documents faced wage theft than those undocumented
- Saudi Arabia recorded highest wage theft cases
- Returnee migrants on an average lost about Tk1,75,000
Md Atiq, 55, who worked at a steel factory in the United Arab Emirates for 14 years used to receive a small portion of his salary every month and his employer used to clear his dues at the end of the year.
He was planning to visit Bangladesh last year and, according to the payment procedure, his employer was supposed to clear all his dues before he would leave the Gulf country. But before receiving the outstanding wages from his employer, he was forcefully deported by the authorities amid the pandemic.
Atiq's case is not unique. In fact, hundreds of migrant workers like Atiq who returned, or were forced to return, to their countries of origin amid the pandemic have been facing wage theft or non-payment of their monthly wages, according to a report of the Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA) – a rights advocate for migrant workers and their families.
The MFA launched the report, "Crying Out for Justice: Wage Theft Against Migrant Workers during COVID-19" in April this year as part of the Justice for Wage Theft campaign, that documented 704 cases of wage theft from the period of November 2019 to January 2021.
The report presented scenarios in which wage theft occurs apart from non-payment of wages, which include failure to pay on time, unpaid overtime, and reduced wages.
Wage theft is the denial of wages or employee benefits rightfully owed to an employee.
The report also revealed the intrinsic lack of access to justice among migrant workers over this issue.
"It was my bad luck that I was arrested and deported. My employer owes me around Tk5,00,000, including my last two months' salaries,'' Atiq said in an interview with the Refugee and Migratory Movement Research Unit (RMMRU).
CR Abrar, executive director of the RMMRU, said wage theft is not something new, but the Covid-19 pandemic has brought this issue to the fore.
"Documentation is very important for ensuring justice for wage theft cases in destination countries. Therefore, we are now working in association with the MFA on 1,000 households in Bangladesh who have faced wage theft in the pandemic situation," he said.
Even though international organisation like the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the World Bank emphasise the need to wage theft, destination countries are not paying any heed to their call, he pointed out, adding that countries of origin are not making much effort to prevent this practice either.
Abrar further added that any subsidy for any industry should incorporate the wage issue of sector workers in the sector so that workers get their wages even in any critical situation.
Saudi Arabia registers highest wage theft cases
Among the host countries, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has registered the highest number of 292 cases of wage theft, accounting for approximately 41.5% of total cases, according to the MFA report.
It is followed by 129 cases registered in Bahrain, 66 in Kuwait and 63 in Qatar. Fifty-two cases were reported in Malaysia, 45 in the UAE and 20 in Oman.
Other countries of destination that registered cases of wage theft include China, Singapore, South Korea, Jordan and Lebanon.
In the Gulf region, workers who have filed cases over wage theft in Saudi were primarily from 6 countries. These include 139 workers from Nepal – almost 50% of the total cases. Other workers include 72 from India, 43 from the Philippines, 32 from Bangladesh, 5 from Indonesia and 2 from Pakistan.
Wage theft more prevalent among documented workers
Among the 704 cases of wage theft documented by the MFA, 545 are involved with documented workers and 159 involved with undocumented workers.
Bangladesh has the highest proportion of documented workers among the countries of origin, followed by India and the Philippines, the study says.
On the other hand, Indonesia has the highest proportion of undocumented workers (34%), followed by Nepal (24.7%).
This indicates that forms of wage theft were experienced by a significant population of documented workers despite comparatively better access to services and facilities as compared to undocumented workers.
Meanwhile, around 67% migrants who involuntarily returned to Bangladesh became the victim of unpaid wages and 62% of these returnees left behind assets abroad amid the Covid-19 crisis, according to a joint study of the RMMRU and Bangladesh Civil Society for Migrants Published on January this year.
In Bangladesh, returnee migrants on an average lost about Tk1,75,000, says the study.
Addressing the launching ceremony of the study, Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman, adviser to a former caretaker government, said, "Wage theft is a violation of human rights. Destination countries should introduce a mechanism allowing migrants who returned to receive their unpaid wages."
He also emphasised ensuring a social safety net for the returnee migrants.
Around 5 lakh Bangladeshis returned from different countries amid the Covid-19 pandemic, most of them lost their jobs, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training.
Construction workers worst sufferers
The MFA report says 45% of the total cases registered are from the construction industry.
This accounts for 165 from Nepal, 118 from India, 16 from the Philippines, 10 from Bangladesh, and 6 from Indonesia.
For Bangladeshis, the largest proportions of the cases of wage theft were in the hospitality (22) and construction (10) sectors.
Workers across all sectors report that existing systems of wage protection in host countries, such as policies to ensure the employer only deposits the salary in the worker's bank account and subsequent monitoring of the amount as consistent with the contract signed, etc, have been insufficient in protecting workers' rights.