In 15 years of my career in the migration sector – 12 years as a journalist and three years as a development professional – whenever I defined Bangladesh to foreigners, I told them it is a country of "EFG" where "E" stands for expatriate workers, "F" for farmers and "G" stands for garment workers.
I believe that you do not have to be an economist to say that if all the sectors of Bangladesh, except for these three, collapse, Bangladesh will survive. But if any of these three sectors falls, Bangladesh doesn't have a chance – take the recent onion crisis for an example.
In fact, 11 million expatriate workers along with a big number of garment workers and farmers are the pillars of Bangladesh economy. But to our dismay, the people of all these three sections often face negligence and disrespect.
Each year, around two million people are joining the overseas job sector. Only in 2017, about a million people went abroad for jobs. On average, around half a million people are going abroad for jobs. In the last decade, around six million people went abroad for jobs. Riding on their hard work, Bangladesh earns around $14 to $15 billion in remittance each year which is six times more than our annual loans.
Most Bangladeshi workers abroad, since the 70s, are men. At present, only around a million out of the total expatriate workers are women. Five years ago, around 5 to 6 percent of our expatriate workforce were women. But the number of expatriate women has increased sharply after the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies signed a memorandum of understanding with Saudi Arabia in 2015. In the last three years, nearly 3 lakh female workers had gone to Saudi Arabia.
The increasing figures may sound very pleasing for a time being. But when we look at the protection mechanism for these women, this happiness just fades away.
When the instrument was signed, as a journalist, I wrote about possible difficulties female workers might face in Saudi Arabia. Then, I questioned about the proposed salary of less than Tk16,000 for them, and I also asked if Bangladesh had ensured a proper protection mechanism for these unskilled labourers, given the tortures Indonesian and Filipino women suffered earlier.
The government assured us that an appropriate protection mechanism had been taken. But we had begun to receive a lot of complaints of tortures and abuses within a year.
The government only began to establish safe houses for the victims when such incidents grew in numbers. The safety mechanism was supposed to be ensured prior to sending the women in the first place, but we did the exact opposite – went for protection after tortures soared.
When it comes to justice for the women who suffer such brutality, there is no way to get the Saudi abusers to justice. I talked to a Bangladesh embassy official in Saudi Arabia who told me that even if a woman manages to call the embassy to inform about the tortures she endures, there is nothing much that the embassy can do for her. This is so, because the Saudi police do not take appropriate actions against the culprits, and the embassy officials do not have permission to go and inspect the houses.
As a result, the victims are often advised to flee. And that is when the safe houses come in their help. The women, who manage to flee, take shelter in the safe houses and wait to return to Bangladesh where a further uncertainty awaits them.
Most of the times our government officials or the recruiting agencies try to state that the number of returnees is less than 5 to 6 percent. They often claim that considering the total number of workers, this is not a big total. This is where I strongly disagree with them. When it comes to the violation against human rights, you cannot evaluate the condition only on the basis of numbers.
When I joined the Brac Migration Programme, I instructed my colleagues and field-level officers to support the victims and their families as much as possible. Whenever they came in for support, we helped them reach appropriate government offices.
In 2018, when the number of tortured female workers increased, there was nobody at the airport to support the returnees. We began to assist these broken.
We have provided nearly 2500 such returnees with emergency services for last two years, around 1500 women in 2018 and around 1,000 women in 2019 till today.
Now, what are the problems that our women have been facing?
Firstly, our women cannot cope with the conditions there. Many of the women from Habiganj, Naogaon and other districts who are going abroad have never seen even Dhaka city. Problems are bound to occur as they are directly sent to a place where culture, weather and food are totally different. Our women in villages generally sleep within 8 pm at night. But in the Middle East, their working hours begin at 7:30-9.00 pm. And don't forget the language barrier.
The whole recruitment process of women domestic workers is dependent on middlemen and recruiting agencies. Most of the times, recruiting agencies do not hire women directly. They depend on the middlemen. The middlemen roam around villages and search for women who are the poorest and are socially deprived. They show them a dream that overseas jobs will bring solvency in their life. The whole recruitment process is problematic.
Secondly, they also promise them that they will have to work only in a single house. But, in reality, they end up working at three to four houses and work almost 18 to 20 hours a day. What adds further to their sufferings is they cannot keep their own passports and cannot contact their family members. And this can be defined more or less as slavery.
Thirdly, many of them are physically tortured. Some suffer burn injuries on hands and some are even thrown out of rooftops. Thus, they find themselves in hospitals with serious injuries.
Fourthly, some of our expatriate women workers in Saudi Arabia are raped brutally at the hands of their employers.
When the abused workers come to the embassy of Bangladesh for assistance, the authorities just place them in the safe houses and later send them back to the country.
The returnees, on the other hand, require to deal with three issues. Firstly, the workers come home enduring many difficulties. Sometimes they are affected mentally and sometimes they do not know where to go. They need emergency supports, including health, food and accommodation supports after their arrival. They need this support up to 72 hours.
Secondly, most of the times, these poor women are socially and economically vulnerable. And they are only going to the Middle East countries in the face of such vulnerabilities. And when they return, they become even more vulnerable as they are blamed by their very own family members. That is why they need psychological and social counselling.
Lastly, as they come home empty-handed, it is necessary to help them economically to start their own business. And making them financially stable is the only solution.
We shouldn't also forget that many people are returning as dead well. Only in the last four years, we have received more than 150 women migrant workers' dead bodies. And I totally differ to the number of returnees to be only 3 to 4 percent.
I am not against sending female workers in the Middle East countries. What I am suggesting is that before sending them to those countries, the government should ensure some protection mechanism so that no harm is done to even a single female worker. If this cannot be ensured, I would request them not to send our women.
Although we have received many dead bodies of our workers, we still have not received any information from any embassy or government officials that the perpetrators were brought to justice. This scenario has made a concept in Saudi Arab that they can do whatever they like to do with domestic workers in the form of modern-day slavery.
There are a lot of loopholes in our recruiting system, and first of all, we need to address those. Our recruitment agencies should start looking for workers themselves and send them after proper training and orientation, instead of depending on middlemen.
Finally, I would say that before sending our women to the Middle East countries, we need to take responsibility and think, if we would send our relatives or even our household workers there under the current context. If the answer is no, I urge that the people concerned take steps to first ensure the protection mechanism and send workers later.
Shariful Islam Hasan is the Head of Brac Migration Programme