Bangladesh is trying to become an upper-middle-income country by 2030, and remittance from unskilled or semi-skilled Bangladeshi expatriate workers will play a major role in this breakthrough.
But the recent crackdown on Bangladeshi workers by the Saudi government has become a matter of grave concern because Saudi Arabia was one of the biggest job markets for Bangladeshi expatriates.
In 2018, Bangladeshi workers provided the highest amount of remittance, amounting to $14,978.86 million and Saudi Arabia had the biggest contribution.
A study by the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMU) found that 257,317 (about 35.05 percent) Bangladeshi expatriate workers went to Saudi Arabia in 2018. Of them, 19,217 were deported in 2018 and 16,451 were sent back till October 2019.
Most of them allege that they were deported despite having a legal and valid work permit, called an 'Aqama'. Many of them are still confined in detention camps. They went to Saudi Arabia with big dreams, but now they are coming back empty-handed after facing inhumane torture. Female workers especially faced the worst form of abuse including rape, sexual harassment, poor pay, unpaid overtime, and food deprivation.
This crackdown is taking place after Saudi Arabia adopted a new policy of nationalising a few job sectors in a bid to increase employment of Arabian nationals. This is directly related to the fact that the fall in oil prices has resulted in 12 percent unemployment in Saudi Arabia.
Arabian nationals never took up unskilled or semi-skilled jobs in the past, but now they are coming to this sector mainly in sales, which employed Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Lebanese and Egyptian workers before.
Saudi Arabia is also deporting Pakistani workers because they are considered to be a security threat. But they have not make any clear statement yet on why they are deporting Bangladeshi workers.
The Bangladesh government says it will discuss this continuous deportation with Saudi Arabia. The Bangladeshi authorities say they can help in the repatriation process, but cannot take the perpetrators to court.
What can Bangladesh do regarding sexual abuse of women?
The RMMU study said that the problem has come about because female workers are sent under a 'free' visa category, meaning, the recruiting agency is responsible for them for the entire period of the contract.
And the scope of jobs for women is very limited compared to that for men. Women are mainly employed in two fields – domestic work and cleaning.
Even if they are unwilling to continue the job, they cannot change it without the consent of their sponsor or the recruiting agency. In many cases, the employer confiscates their passport and even frames them in false cases. Later, they are deported without pay, even though the recruiting agency had promised that they will be paid.
Sexual abuse of women is nothing new in Saudia Arabia, but "Bangladesh took the opportunity of sending women workers to the Gulf, especially to Saudi Arabia, when other Asian countries had limited sending their female workers there," said Rothna Begum, senior women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Although Bangladesh has built safe homes in the destination country to provide shelter to female workers who have been victimised, it also needs to provide legal help on their behalf.
First, Bangladesh needs to limit sending women under the 'free' visa category. It also should appoint lawyers and interpreters to negotiate with Saudi authorities so that victims can stay in the country and lodge complaints, and not have to come back until their cases are resolved.
It also needs to appoint counsellors who will provide psychological support to traumatised victims.
The RMMU study also says that the Bangladesh Embassy in Saudi Arabia employs around 300 people to help Bangladeshi expatriate workers, but they are engaged in other work as well. They cannot help victims when they are busy in other missions.
The embassy should recruit more female officials to help female workers, but inadequate funding is a hindrance in employing lawyers, interpreters and female officials.
However, Bangladesh can take the fund from the Wage Earners' Welfare Board.
The Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET) receives direct and online complaints. But very few expatriate workers know about the app. This calls for letting the female expatriate workers and their families know about the app and how to use it before sending them to the destination country.
What steps should Bangladesh take?
The RMMU study says that Bangladesh must raise the issue of Kafala (visa sponsorship) which ties the workers' residency permit to sponsors. When workers receive a legal work permit, they should get the opportunity to have access to other jobs if they lose the current job or face exploitation and other issues.
BMET has received 850 complaints so far, but the RMMU study shows that none of the cases has been resolved yet. The Bangladesh embassy should help the complainants get justice by collecting evidence and submitting it to the Arab police.
Bangladesh should also compensate workers who lose their job and have to return home so that they can adjust in the local job market.
And finally, Bangladesh should press the Saudi government to make sure that Bangladeshi workers get a safe work environment and rights as per international law.