Bangladesh is one of the key migrant-sending countries in the world. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), more than 400,000 workers leave Bangladesh every year for overseas employment.
Our country received $18.21 billion in remittance in FY2019-20, which was the highest in a fiscal year in the history of Bangladesh. Not just remittance inflow but foreign exchange reserve also increased due to their contribution. As a result, our forex reserve crossed $38.15 billion on August 17, 2020, due to the rise in remittance inflow.
Unfortunately, the significant patrons of our economy are stuck in a cycle of abuse. Numerous reports on migrant workers being subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, contract frauds, passport and work permit seizures, overwork, wage theft, denial of any safety equipment, serious medical neglect, and suicide cover-ups have been published by various human rights organisations.
For years, they have been living in cramped spaces and sleeping in shifts in collective accommodations not fit for human habitation. The state they remain in resembles that of slaves to their employers of the Kafala system still prevailing in most Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, as well as in other Arab states such as Jordan and Lebanon.
In 2015, following an agreement with Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh began sending female workers and till date, around three lakh Bangladeshi women migrated for work, as per reports published by the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET). Struggling to make ends meet in their own country, these women travel overseas for work with the hope of supporting their families. They sell their last piece of land or take a loan from local money lenders at high interest to arrange the money to be paid to manpower agencies.
However, the irony lies in them coming back with tales of exploitation and bruises on their bodies. 311 women were sent back in coffins, with a total of around 900 returning in 2019. Nevertheless, a huge number of women are still tolerating the misery or attempting to commit suicide. The lack of adequate immigration documents contributes more to their torment.
Shirina Begum of Lalmonirhat went to Saudi Arabia in May 2019 where she was forced to live on "bhater mar" (the starchy water poured off cooked rice) for months, was overworked, and was sexually violated by the son of the house where she was employed. This spurred her to flee and she ended up in the nearest police station.
Due to not having proper immigration documents, she was imprisoned for a month where she, as per her statement, was treated "like an animal." Her suffering did not just end there. Upon her return to Bangladesh, she was heavily in debt.
Neither these victims of insufferable abuse get justice in the country they migrated to nor do they receive fair treatment in their own homeland. The recruiting agencies deny refunding their money and threaten them instead if they wish to pursue legal actions against them.
According to the current guidelines provided by the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment, it is imperative for female migrant workers to be in the age group of 25-38 and the recruiting agency must bear all the responsibilities of the workers from the inception of the contract till the completion of its duration.
Nevertheless, these agencies display gross ignorance of the aforementioned guidelines. A vivid example of their apathy as well as their casual disregard for the law was evident in the recent case of 14-year-old Umme Kulsum, who was sent to Saudi Arabia as a household help last year with false information in her passport. Her passport stated her age to be 25. She was subsequently tortured to death, and her body was brought back to Bangladesh on September 12.
There are numerous women such as Kulsum and Shirina out there pleading to their families, embassies, and the government to be set free from this cycle of abuse they have involuntarily fallen into. After long 20 years of the establishment of a separate ministry, we are still consistently failing to respond to the cry of help from our remittance fighters.
With new reports of abovementioned violence surfacing every so often, it makes us wonder whether we will ever be able to deliver justice to our women. From what we are seeing now, it seems not.
Tanjina Rahman Priti and Nusrat Jahan Meem are research and drafting interns at Bangladesh Forum for Legal and Humanitarian Affairs (BFLHA)