Imagine you are someone who lives under the poverty line in Bangladesh with a family. A recruiting agency approaches you claiming it will find work for you in the Gulf. The idea of earning good money and living in a city deemed holy in your religion is naturally appealing to you. Little do you realise how the glimmering image of the Gulf is like the colours of a Venus Flytrap and you are like an insect about to step into the trap.
The story of a Bangladeshi domestic worker leaving the country with dreams of a better life and returning in a hospital stretcher or worse, a coffin, appears on our newspaper columns and TV headlines quite often. About 3,800 Bangladeshis died while working abroad last year. More than 900 female migrant workers returned to Bangladesh after falling victim to abuse in the first eight months of 2019 alone.
In this article, let us focus on the structural impediments that act as tools for thousands of migrant workers' plight. There are two major agents on both sides of the border: the recruitment agencies in their home country and employers in the host countries.
Informally known as "dalaals", "middlemen" or "sub-agents", these unscrupulous service providers are the backbone of the migrant labour recruitment process. Bangladesh has over 1200 licensed recruitment agencies and being located in cities allows these unlicensed middlemen to have so much power.
These dalaals are scattered all over the rural areas of Bangladesh, often having an eye on poverty-stricken families. As soon as a suitable candidate appears, the dalaals lie about the potential salary and type of job available, making the candidates' lives overseas seem much more comfortable than what their duties will truly entail.
Secondly, these unlicensed middlemen charge exorbitant recruitment fees for their services, which include the arrangement of passports and visas with no legal document of certification. Since there is no government supervision amidst this, they can get away with overcharging. According to a research paper by RMMRU, 82% of those who went to Libya through sub-agent paid drastically higher fees than a small number of workers who were recruited directly by the employers of multinational companies.
Bangladesh is one of the most expensive nations for those seeking to migrate, with some migrant workers paying fees of up t0 $8,500 to go abroad (the United Nations).
Considering financial affordability, this unofficial fee exchange also means that when a labour wants to drag the dalaal to court, the lack of documents will make conviction highly unlikely.
What more can be done?
Licensing the 'dalals'
The Bangladeshi government has been meaning to shed light on these middlemen who operate in the informal service sector by licensing them. However, licensing them has to be the starting point in terms of reforms. Documentation of every transaction between the migrants and the agents must be mandatory.
Zero cost deal with Malaysia
After disallowing Bangladeshi migrants since 2018, Malaysia is having talks about a transparent labour migration process. According to the offer, Malaysian employers will pay visa fees, airfares, medical screening costs, recruitment agency commissions and levies for Bangladeshi job seekers - a system that falls under the UN convention on migrant workers.
Dissemination of information
The government should try to equip potential migrants with as much information on how to deal with dalaals. For example, asking everyone to demand documentation of transactions between their dalaals and stowing the papers away for later necessity. Although the 1982 Ordinance allows governments to shut down dubious agencies, the absence of such papers has prevented such actions from the government.
Employers in the host countries
The problem begins with the Kafala system being formalised into legal frameworks in the 1950s. Based on the principle that the employers in the host country should guide foreign unskilled labourers with everything during their time in the country. But this seemingly innocuous system creates life-threatening situations for migrant workers as this system grants the employers possession of the migrants' legal documents. This way, they directly control migrants.
Almost 75% of the workers face delays in their wages. With language barriers and inadequate access to information about the foreign country, these workers can barely seek refuge from the law. Most women migrant workers report inhumane treatments, such as beatings, inadequate food and sexual abuse. In places like Saudi Arabia, a labour migrant accused of theft or witchcraft has little chance of defending himself.
Are we seeing any reforms?
According to BRAC, a non-governmental organisation working with Bangladeshi migration workers, a total of 1,353 female workers came back to Bangladesh from Saudi Arabia last year because of the inhuman working conditions.
Due to not having proper immigration papers (under the kafala system, the employer is in possession of such documents), such victims cannot seek refuge from the law. While legal proceedings get sorted, the victims spend time in safe houses.
Abolition or reformation of the kafala system
Saudi Arabia has announced the abolition of the kafala system. Qatar has introduced labour law reforms and as per the changes, there will be a rise in the minimum wage by 25 percent to 1,000 riyals ($275) a month. Moreover, workers would not be required to have employer's permission to change jobs.
Last month, Saudi Arabia passed a landmark verdict where it sentenced a Saudi Arabian woman to death penalty for torture and murder of a Bangladeshi migrant worker. If other countries can put pressure, international migrant rights organisations can be more hopeful.
Bangladesh received $18.3 billion via remittance, making it the second-largest source of foreign earnings. The country is on the track to exit the list of least developed countries by 2024 but our country's success story cannot be built over our most vulnerable population.
Aonkita Dey has recently finished her A levels from Green Herald School.
This is the 5th policy column under Youth Policy Forum (YPF)-TBS partnership. For more policy discussions and analysis, reach us at ypfbd.org
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.