The whole world is going through a critical time due to the Covid-19 situation. Bangladesh being overtaken by a health crisis, economic fallout, and many undiscerned perils introduced by Covid-19, many challenges are yet to be solved.
The returnee migrant workers and their bitter experience in the host countries have made headlines. The Covid-19 situation has brought out issues related to overseas migration and gave us a clearer picture of the inane commitment of protecting the rights of our migrant workers.
Over 10 million Bangladeshi workers are employed in different host countries of the world. They have a significant contribution to the economy of Bangladesh and also towards strengthening the economy of the host countries. In return, they deserve a dignified life with the assurance of basic human rights. Unfortunately, what the migrants receive in return tells a different story. They have often been exposed to disfavour, negligence, and discrimination in the host countries.
The major labour receiving countries, especially Gulf countries and the Maldives have allegedly failed to uphold the dignity of our migrant workers. Amidst this pandemic, these countries have been exerting pressure on Bangladesh to repatriate the migrant workers without any assurance of remigration. These countries did not consider the vulnerability of our migrant workers and the high risk involved in such a repatriation process.
Due to the pandemic, many employers are illegally terminating the service contracts of our migrant workers without any compensation and many workers have been subjected to withholding and decrease in wages. The remaining migrant workers of Bangladesh are in a helpless situation and they are often denied food, healthcare, and shelter in the host countries.
The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, 1990 along with the Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention, 1975 put an obligation on part of the host countries for fair treatment and welfare of the migrant workers employed in these countries.
The principle of nondiscrimination, the security of employment, social protection, and other basic human rights remain at the core of these conventions. But these conventions lose their appeal when the host countries show gross disinterest in the ratification of these conventions.
If we look at the ratification status of these conventions, it is apparent that most of the host countries did not ratify these conventions and thus they do not oblige themselves to protect the rights of the migrant workers. In such a situation, ILO and the above-mentioned conventions emphasise the adoption of bilateral agreements with the host countries.
A bilateral agreement is an agreement between the country of origin and country of destination defining clear responsibilities and actions to be taken on part of each state party to promote the welfare of the migrant workers.
As such, for ensuring a dignified status of migrant workers in the host countries, ILO 1949 Model Agreement and ILO's 2015 Global Review set out key factors that should be addressed in a bilateral agreement.
It is to be mentioned here that, The Overseas Employment and Migration Act, 2013 and The Expatriates Welfare and Overseas Employment Policy, 2016 have recognised the value of such agreements in ensuring better protection and security to the migrant workers.
But the adoption of a binding bilateral agreement is not a widespread practice in Bangladesh. With most of the host countries, Bangladesh has concluded agreements which are non-binding and these mostly play role in maintaining good diplomatic relation status with the host countries.
Now a rational question arises – whether adoption of a bilateral agreement with the host countries will possibly bring any positive impact in the current migration scenario?
Certainly, an agreement in black and white can bring no difference if not followed by rigorous implementation. It depends upon the commitment, actions, and policies of the state parties.
Certain factors aid the proper implementation of a bilateral agreement. For example, effective monitoring, evaluation, assessment of an agreement and establishing a joint committee for that purpose, ensuring trade union rights to the migrant workers, strengthening the labour wings in the host countries and ensuring access to justice with an effective remedy where any abuse occurs, etc. determine the efficacy of an agreement.
The migration scenario of Bangladesh is becoming more and more grim day by day and the migrant workers are the worst sufferers. It is time for Bangladesh to rethink the condition of our migrant workers and go for bilateral agreements with the host countries with special emphasis on their implementation.
Adiba Tahsin Raha is a student of the Department of Law at the University of Chittagong.