Migrant Workers: The Never-ending Tragedy

January 13, 2009
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.

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Sweatshop Tales

September 22, 2008

[STAR Magazine Special Feature, August 29, 2008]

Modern Kuwait represents all the glamour and opulence of an oil-rich country. Behind the glamour is the toil of the hundreds and thousands of migrant workers. Among them are 240,000 Bangladeshi workers many of whom are underpaid, work 7 days a week and live in appalling conditions defying all international labour laws. Too scared to complain to the authorities because their passports are held hostage by their employers, placed into shady work situations by a Bangladeshi manpower industry that is wildly unregulated and endemically corrupt, on July 28 the Pandora’s Box finally exploded.

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Scalding Wake-up Call

June 27, 2008


[Ratna with her mother at the hospital — her tongue, legs and buttocks bearing the marks from the torture endured at the home of Sylhet’s Chief Judicial Magistrate Rafiqul Alam.]

Fourteen-year-old Ratna who worked as a maid for the last 10 months reveals the horror stories of how she faced demonic torture by her employer, the wife of Sylhet’s Chief Judicial Magistrate. If this is the way his home is run, how can he administer justice in the courts? Read the rest of this entry »


Dreams Interrupted

June 20, 2008


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Stolen Childhood

May 3, 2008

by Hana Shams Ahmed
[Daily Star, May 3, 2008]

Two weeks ago there was a shocking news report about the brutal murder of a 56-year-old writer. The 23-year-old murderer was a nephew of the woman, and reports allege that he was a drug addict and came to his aunt looking for money. When he was refused, he went ballistic and murdered her. The whole incident was witnessed from the beginning by one person– an eight-year-old girl, called Momota. News cameras caught her describing in gory detail every step of the murder, and finally the murderer running away and warning the girl of dire consequences if she spoke about it to anyone.

How is Momota related to anyone in the house? She’s not. She used to work as a ‘bandha’ (derogatory term for full-time employment) maidservant of the house. Read the rest of this entry »


Standing Up and Standing Out

March 7, 2008

Standing Up and Standing Out
by Hana Shams Ahmed
[Daily Star, March 7, 2008]


Begum Rokeya’s ‘Sultana’s Dream’ was an early work of fantasy fiction. But if any group of women have come close to achieving that state, it is the 18 lakh garment workers in the 4,500 factories all over the country. In a society where a woman’s first responsibility is always seen as the caretaker of the house and mother to her children, where her career is secondary to her husband’s, it is these garment workers who have at many homes become the sole providers for their families. In many cases, it is the husbands who do the family cooking because of the late work hours wives have at the factories.
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Stripped of Their Last Source of Survival

September 20, 2007

by Hana Shams Ahmed
[Daily Star, September 20, 2007]


(L-R): Hasina Khatun, Saleha Khatun, Abdur Rahim and Jahanara Begum

Jahanara Begum is too ill to hold a pen steadily. But for 35 years, that steady hand helped shape many of the best doctors, lawyers, teachers and engineers of today. This 67-year-old woman has been a primary school teacher since 1962, and retired from service in 1998. Her place of work: Bhajahuri Shaha Street Government Primary School in Dhaka’s Sutrapur area. After the disappearance of her husband, a freedom fighter who never returned home after March 25th, she single-handedly brought up her two sons and daughter. After toiling away for so many years for a meagre pay of about Taka 4000 a month, Jahanara looked forward to her retirement. Read the rest of this entry »