"I have been to Lebanon twice – in 2009 and 2011 – and to Saudi Arabia once – in 2016. All these three times I have returned home empty handed and wounded. I was forced to work till mid-night from very early in the morning without enough food. I was permitted to take shower only once a week. It was inhuman," says Shahnaj, a middle-aged woman from Narayanganj. Yet, Shahnaj has kept dreaming of a better life through migration. "I want to try my luck again. I want to go abroad once the coronavirus pandemic is over and earn some money to recover my losses."
Even after being a victim of all sorts of rights violations, Shahnaj is hopeful. Local recruitment agent Moijuddin facilitated her migration abroad all these times but she could not take any legal action against him. She does not have the ability to even acknowledge the fact that the process of her migration is unlawful as per the Overseas Employment and Migrants' Act 2013 and she needs to hold Moijuddin accountable on a larger scale.
Migrant workers are often unaware of their rights on the one hand, and on the other hand fraudulent recruitment practices of the recruitment chain remain unprosecuted. Hence, migrant workers often become victims of fraud.
After investigating the 111 cases of returning women migrant workers in August 2018, the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment found out that 35 percent of them were victims of sexual, and physical abuse, while 43 percent received irregular wages in the destination countries.
We might have already forgotten about 14-year-old domestic worker Kulsum who was sent to Saudi Arabia in April 2018 with false documents but returned to Bangladesh in a body bag on 12 September this year. She was tortured mercilessly to death by her employers.
Nonetheless, Kulsum's was not the first case of migrant workers' death abroad. And it would not be the last one for sure. But the perpetrators who send underage girls abroad with false documents violating the laws or employers abroad who cause brutal death to poor women by merciless physical, mental or sexual abuse rarely come on the scene as they get impunity from the state authority.
According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET), migrant Bangladeshis remitted $16 billion to home in the fiscal year 2019-2020. The highest portion of this – $3.5 billion – came from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In contrast, 153 dead bodies of women migrant workers returned to Bangladesh from Saudi Arabia in the time between 2016 and 2019, according to the Expatriate Welfare Desk at the airport.
Women migrants face numerous problems except physical and sexual abuse, which include irregular payment of salaries, long working hours, starvation etc. In such situations, many domestic workers are forced to run away from their employer's home, become undocumented and fall into a more vulnerable situation. Many of them end up experiencing other forms of exploitation, including slavery, prostitution, trafficking and end up in jail custody.
Then, who are responsible for making migrant workers, especially women, undocumented? What legal measures are there to protect migrant workers in destination countries?
The Overseas Employment and Migrants' Act 2013 in Article 27 speaks about providing legal aid to distressed migrant workers. But how many migrant workers were provided legal aid to file complaints against their employers in destination countries or recruiting agents at home?
We saw that no legal move was taken on behalf of Kulsum. Neither there was any initiative in the case of the recovery of body parts of a Bangladeshi migrant worker in a sewage drain in Jordan.
Among good practices, the Indonesian government paid $2.1 million in 2014 to save Indonesian maid Satinah binti Jumadi Ahmad in Saudi Arabia, who was on death row for murdering her employer in self-defence, who regularly abused her. As a labour sending country, Indonesia fought for its expatriate worker.
The Overseas Employment and Migrants Act has enough provisions to hold recruiting agents, sub-agents accountable and ensure rigorous punishment against any fraudulent activity. However, the recruiting agencies, agents, sub-agents manage to get fake passports, fake certificates, and manpower clearance through the legal migration process and always get away with all their wrongdoing. Over the last seven years since the migrant act was passed, no case has been filed by authorities concerned against fraudulent recruiting agencies, agents and sub-agents. No initiative was taken to provide legal aid to the victim migrant workers at home and abroad either.
Instead of ensuring safe and ethical recruitment practices and protecting migrants' rights, the authorities often blame them for being unaware. There is a tendency among the authorities concerned including embassies to keep migrants silent especially in the case of violations of their rights by their employers. Therefore, migrants' rights are always violated in the whole migration cycle.
Migrant workers' rights are among human rights. Both the countries of origin and destination must ensure migrant workers' rights. The culture of impunity will lead to further violations of rights of migrant workers.
Bangladesh is set to graduate to the status of a developing country in 2024. This status will also make the country more liable towards its people. The country has to be more alert about ensuring human rights.
Migration and vulnerability are two sides of one coin for Bangladeshis. As violations of human rights are no sporadic events for Bangladeshi migrant workers, it is ultimately driving the nation towards bigger risks and a vulnerable situation that would only make the situation worse. Our state functionaries cannot remain in a state of denial for long. Hence, not only achieving economic stability but also upholding the rights of the people by making the authorities concerned accountable would be the possible way to bring an end to such malicious practices.
The author is a migrant activist and Chairperson of Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Programme (OKUP).