When I was growing up outside of Bangladesh, my parents were careful to remind me that we had not become migrants and that our loyalties remained very firmly back home. (My father was a diplomat, and we roamed the world without putting down roots anywhere.) Back then, people left home for places like America, Britain and Australia, returning after many years with children who spoke heavily accented Bangla and complained about the heat. One of my distant relatives spent the entire duration of his vacation from Atlanta holed up in a giant mosquito net drinking only coconut water.
Migration to those countries is still much sought after, but the Bangladeshi migrant today tends to be of a different sort: a worker who goes abroad for a short period of time, perhaps only a few years, with the sole purpose of sending money home. He leaves his family, and his loyalties, behind. These days, as I travel back and forth from Bangladesh, I often see at the Dhaka airport a line of migrant workers, in matching jumpsuits, boarding airplanes bound for construction sites in West Asia and Southeast Asia.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis leave home to work abroad, mostly in West Asia. The money they send back is the single-largest source of foreign exchange earnings for the Bangladeshi economy. As a result, Bangladesh tends to be unduly grateful to any state willing to employ its nationals, and often acts less like a supplier than a supplicant. But the worker’s journey is perilous. From the moment he steps foot outside his home, he is susceptible to fraud, and often is swindled out of vast sums of money on false promises – fake visas and jobs that don’t exist. If he does arrive legally in a new country, there sometimes is rampant abuse at the other end: low wages or no wages at all, dangerous working places, unsanitary living conditions and, worse, the inability to protest or even escape.
Qatar has recently come under fire for abuses of migrants hired to help prepare for the World Cup soccer tournament in 2022. At the heart of the criticism is kafala, an employment-sponsorship system that exists throughout the Middle East. Though kafala, which ties workers to their employers, is supposed to act as a safety net for workers, abuse is rife. Human Rights Watch describes the practice in Saudi Arabia, by far the biggest employer of Bangladeshi workers, as a system in which employers, in violation of Saudi law, “confiscate passports, withhold wages, and force migrants to work against their will or on exploitative terms.” As is so often the case, a situation that is bad for migrant men is many times worse for migrant women, most of whom are domestic workers. Though flawed, at least kafala offers some formal guarantees, like restrictions on working hours. But it does not apply to domestic workers; even if they work for a legal sponsor, they have no protections under Saudi labor laws.
In 2009, after the global economic downturn, half as many Bangladeshis went abroad on short-term work contracts as had the year before. And, when one employer after another went bankrupt, Bangladeshis already working abroad started returning in droves – at the rate of up to 300 a day. Migration picked up again in 2011 and 2012, but then dropped by almost one-third in 2013. Still, the total of remittances to Bangladesh last year exceeded $13 billion.
Recently, the government has taken some welcome steps to help its emigrants. There are now several nationally funded initiatives to help Bangladeshis travel safely to their jobs abroad: assessments of recruitment agencies, access to loans, training and extended consular services. Under the Overseas Employment and Migrant Workers’ Bill that was passed last year, migrants and their families can lodge both criminal cases and civil complaints for compensation against recruitment agencies that try to defraud them.
These efforts, however, are mostly concentrated on the problems workers face before they set foot out of the country. When it comes to advocating for the rights of workers once they are employed abroad, Bangladesh remains reluctant to ask for better standards for fear that host countries would look elsewhere to satisfy their manpower needs.
It is time for supplier nations like Bangladesh, as well as Nepal, Sri Lanka and India, to take matters into their own hands. They must conduct a coordinated effort to earn better rights for their nationals. If need be, they should refuse to send any new workers to West Asia until host countries fundamentally change the basis on which they employ migrants. Supplier countries often compete with one another to secure jobs abroad for their people. But it is in their long-term interest to band together in a multinational boycott – even if for only a fixed amount of time – to pressure host countries to improve workers’ conditions. After all, it is in their long-term interest to make clear that the men and women they send abroad to build stadiums or maintain others’ homes are not expendable.
Individuals already know this, of course. On a recent trip home, I met a Bangladeshi woman waiting for her luggage at the arrivals hall in Dhaka airport. She was returning from Jordan because an employer there had treated her poorly. “So, what will you do now?” I asked. “I’ll go again,” she replied. “To a better country.”
Courtesy: Business Standard.