Migrant Workers: The Never-ending Tragedy

Sanjib Kumar Roy, Reuters

One of the survivors of the Andaman tragedy being helped by an Indian coastguard. (Photo: Sanjib Kumar Roy, Reuters)

Throughout 2008 we received reports about how poor men and women were swindled by recruiting agents in Bangladesh and left stranded in hostile foreign country environments. We saw employers in host countries, taking advantage of migrants’ ‘undocumented’ status to abuse their rights and cheat them of payment. When abused workers tried to protest, it led to ‘bad press’ for ‘Bangladeshi workers’ as a category, and many were sent back en masse. Some governments threatened to stop recruiting Bangladeshi workers altogether, leading to weak and ineffective diplomatic overtures from our side. While the latest press headline reports overseas remittances hitting a new high, the year 2008 ended with another tragedy. 300 Bangladeshi men headed for Malaysia drowned in the sea near the Andaman Islands.

Hana Shams Ahmed

[STAR magazine, 09 January, 2009]

According to press reports from Reuters, 412 men, mostly of Bangladeshi nationality, were promised jobs in Malaysia by unidentified recruiting agents. On 14 November these men, aged between 18 and 60, set sail on six motorised vehicles. At some point during their journey, the men changed vessels, according to an Indian coast guard statement. One survivor, identified as Mohammad Ismail Arafat, said he and others had paid a Bangladeshi agent for jobs in Malaysia. The boats they were travelling in did not have enough food in them and seven of the men died from starvation. After drifting around aimlessly for days, they finally spotted a lighthouse somewhere along the Andaman Islands. Hoping they would be able to swim ashore, the men jumped into the sea. Indian coast guard officials said a group of men were rescued from a small boat near Little Andaman Island, from the water. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands lie about 1,200km (750 miles) east of the Indian mainland. Coastguards finally rescued a total of 112 men. The remaining 300 men drowned at sea.

This reminds us of another similar incident in 2005 when 26 Bangladeshi men tried to travel to Spain in search of jobs. They travelled for days through the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea in the hot sun and freezing nights without proper food, water or clothing. At one point they had to resort to drinking their own urine, and sometimes the flesh of their dead companions, to survive. In an interview in the film ‘Deshantori’ (directors Sujan Mahmud and Mridul Chowdhury), one survivor said that as traumatic as the whole incident was, he still wished to migrate to another country for work. This demonstrates how desperate people are to find work and earn a living at any cost. This sense of despair makes this group of people extremely vulnerable at the hands of the recruitment agents.

The past two years have seen several reprehensible cases of swindling of migrant workers working in countries in Asia and the Gulf states. In 2007 a group of young men went to Malaysia with the promise of ‘respectable’ jobs as computer professionals. Many sold off their land to realise their dream job. But within a few months they had to board another flight back to Bangladesh. At the offices of the recruitment agencies they weren’t allowed to read through the contract forms and only later found out that the actual job description was not in fact for a computer operator, but ‘service workers’. Throughout their stay in Malaysia, they were shifted from one ‘labour camp’ to another. There was no sleeping or any other arrangements at these labour camps, and only a single toilet for everyone. 128 people had to live on 10 kilos of rice for two days. There was no work available for months. The shady outsourcing agency stocked up on people and sent groups of five to 10 men when something became available. They were finally rescued and sent back to Bangladesh, but they never earned back the recruitment fee money, which some had borrowed and others had sold off their only piece of land to come up with.

Thousands travel overseas every year in search of better jobs. It is the government’s responsibility to ensure safe and legitimate passage for them.

In November 2007, 22 Bangladeshis workers arriving in Kuwait found themselves trapped in a situation where they were unable to get any work or food or to return home. One of them died. They reported having signed an agreement with third-party ‘dalals’ for a three-year work visa, but finding on their arrival that they had a visitor’s visa and were ineligible for work. The Bangladesh Embassy in Kuwait failed to provide any consular protection.

In another incident in July 2008, 80,000 mostly Bangladeshi workers working for 23 local companies made the Kuwait headlines when they went on a two-day strike protesting their work conditions and non-payment of salaries. Kuwaiti police beat up and arrested at least 800 Bangladeshi workers for staging demonstrations against exploitation by their employers. Many of the workers alleged that they had had to work seven days a week, without any leave over the last eight to 10 years. Some of them were forced to work 16 hours a day without any payment for overtime work and many of the employers beat up the workers. All of them were getting Dinar 20 or less although they were promised Dinar 50 in their original contract. Finally, more than 1000 workers from Kuwait were forcibly repatriated to Bangladesh without their payment arrears. Many came limping out of the Zia International Airport without their shoes, some wearing lungis, some without any luggage, injured and crying.

Saudi Arabia unofficially stopped renewing residential permits to Bangladeshis in 2008. According to the Saudi Government sources, the decision was taken in view of the fact that the quota for Bangladeshi workers in the Kingdom had expired. But this clarification came amid rumours that the Kingdom had halted hiring Bangladeshis because Saudi media ran scare-mongering reports alleging that they were involved in “most criminal acts in the country” including “theft, printing fake currency and running illegal businesses”. A spokesperson for Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment Ministry of Saudi also claimed that some Bangladeshis were engaged in “claiming shops illegally, selling banned CDs, running illegal telephone businesses, stealing manhole covers from roads and footpaths, stealing electricity and telephone cables, and printing fake currency”. A hate campaign ensued against unskilled Bangladeshi workers. A Saudi-based website http://www.antirat.com published pages of alleged crimes and misdemeanours committed by Bangladeshi labourers, ranging from ‘rape and running prostitution ring’ to ‘unhygienic cooking’ practices.

In May 2008, a Bangladeshi mechanic Mohammad, 32, was accused of murdering a Bahraini man Mohammad Jassim Dossary, 37, after a heated argument over payment for car repairs in a garage. Employment of Bangladeshi workers came to a halt from 26 May 2008 after the government stopped issuing work permits to Bangladeshis. The ban was lifted two months later.

The cumulative effect of all these incidents has had a very bad effect on the overseas

In 2008 migrant workers were repatriated from various countries. The newly elected government must tackle this issue very stringently.

labour market. By no means has the demand for migrant workers gone down in the world market. On the contrary Taiwan and Libya have repeatedly said that they wish to employ workers from Bangladesh. But the government has not responded to their call and at various levels of the employment process, there is fallout because of lack of regulation.

The Bangladesh government encourages mass migration, but does not take protective measures for the workers. There are four primary channels of recruitment: Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET), Bangladesh Overseas Employment and Services Limited (BOESL), licensed private recruitment agents, and through links with individual relatives and friends living abroad. In the first three formal channels, there is little attention paid to workers rights and safety. Moreover, in spite of Bangladeshis being densely concentrated around the world, only ten Bangladeshi embassies have labour wings. Therefore, because of their low skill and education, migrants remain vulnerable to exploitation by employers in all destination countries.

Some level of training should be made mandatory even for unskilled migrants. Basic language training is required for workers. There have been some laudable public awareness campaigns on mass media so that potential workers choose to take the legal route to obtain overseas work. The TV ad specifically points out that women workers need not give more than Taka 10,000 to get employed. There need to be hotlines available for workers in distress. In 2008 44 recruitment agencies had their licences cancelled, but some continued to carry out their business. There needs to be more stringent rules set by the government to deal with such agencies or third-party ‘dalals’.

An estimated 5,000,0000 Bangladeshis are working abroad around the globe. Of them, about 3,000,000 living in the Middle East send back approximately 70 percent of all overseas remittance. The amount of remittance received in 2007 was US$6.568b, which is 10 percent of the GDP and 10 times more than Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). According to Bangladesh Bank (BB) statistics, in the just-concluded calendar year remittance worth $8.22 billion came into the country marking a 25.36 percent growth from the financial year before. The caretaker government in the previous financial year gave immigration permission to 663,000 workers. Although the foreign adviser did say that the caretaker government’s aim was to ensure the safety and security of the migrant workers, no changes were brought about in the policy regarding manpower export throughout the tenure of the government.

The newly-elected Awami League government has a full agenda — spiralling prices of essentials, trial of the war criminals, proving that they are indeed ‘secular’ forces, creating a ‘digital Bangladesh’, creating mass scale employment, etc. With the issue of the migrant workers, the government is lucky in starting off on a good footing in economic terms. Bangladesh Bank has predicted that remittances will hit a record Taka 10 billion in the next financial year. The policy makers of this government now have to go behind the financial headlines and tackle the more important issue of ensuring their rights and safety. Bad press, backlash and tragedies like the incident in Andaman must be prevented to ensure continued stability for the single largest driver of the Bangladesh economy via remittance.

Portions of this article excerpts from the chapter on migrants for the Ain o Shalish Kendro 2008 Annual Report.

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