Toil, tears and sweat

Through a number of real life accounts, Muhammad Ibrahim Ibne Towhid highlights why the country is facing a dip in remittances from migrant workers

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A significant portion of the county’s economy is driven from overseas cash flow, most of which are remittances sent by migrant workers. According to ILO, more than 400,000 workers leave the country for overseas employment each year.

However, media reports indicate that the flow of remittances have dropped substantially by US$2.16 billion during the last fiscal year (FY), despite various measures taken by the country’s central bank. Reports suggest that the inward remittances dropped to US$12.77 billion in the FY 2016-17 from $14.93 billion of the previous year.

In such a case, there are mixed feelings in the minds of the workers, and some of their stories cannot just be taken for granted.

Much earlier, most short-term migrants going abroad were male. But since the 1990s, there has been a persistent increase in the number of female migrant workers, particularly in domestic work and manufacturing sector.

While migration has allowed hundred of migrants to break out of the chains of poverty and the constraints of class, allowing them to climb the economic ladder towards success, it is still an extremely complex phenomenon with no single narrative and with multidimensional consequences. There are also many stories where the individual did not succeed.

Around 150 such cases along with accounts where migrant workers have faced torture, rape and other forms of harassment in foreign lands have been highlighted in the book ‘Untold Stories of Migrants: Dreams & Realities (2017)’.

The stories coming from different time periods with different historical contexts share events that also expose incidents of fraud, deceit, abuse, and even death. The book urges for multilateralism and a greater role for the UN in setting minimum labour standards.

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One case was that of Abdul Hasan from Tongi, Gazipur who used to run a grocery stall with his wife. In dreams of better fortune, Hasan had migrated to Bahrain. Hasan shares, ‘I got a job in a construction factory as a foreman with a salary of Tk 40,000. Citing security reasons, my employer seized my passport and other documents. I was told that my living costs were not covered and a large amount was deducted from my salary which allowed me to remit only Tk 20,000 which did not cover my up-front migration cost. Without my passport I cannot even apply for other jobs. I fear that if I leave this job against my employer’s will, the police may arrest me. My life is full of uncertainty these days, but what else can I do?’

Migration workers mostly come from the marginalised groups of the society. The destinations they go to include nations in the Gulf States, Arab States, Southeast Asia, East Asia and South Asia. Despite the destination they are going to, the tales of sufferings are nearly similar.

Hashem Rahman from Comilla shared how reality was extremely different from his expectations. Rahman says, ‘I am a returnee migrant from Oman. It had cost me Tk 350,000 to arrange a visa from a middleman. I was supposed to be working in a restaurant, but upon reaching the owner told me that the kitchen was still under construction. So I could not work there and he advised me to work in the construction industry. I worked for a month without salary and upon asking, I was informed that the salary would be given later.’

‘One day I was asked to climb a tree to trim some branches. While climbing up, I fell and was knocked unconscious. I was in the hospital for three months with severe leg pain and backbone fracture. After being confined to a wheelchair for more than three months, I was able to walk again and was sent back home. I am now searching for work in the garments industry here,’ adds Rahman.

Abul Nasim Fakir from Gopalganj went to Saudi Arabia and eventually landed in jail there. He says, I was promised a job as a chauffeur and I secured a visa through a broker. But I was placed with a company that did not pay me the promised amount. One day I got into a traffic accident and when police searched my documents, I learnt I was sent on someone else’s visa. For this, I was sentenced to 11 months in prison. I could not even reach my broker.’

Dhirendra Shutrodhar belongs to a Hindu community. He says, ‘My son Dulal went to work in Saudi Arabia eight years ago. The dalal had informed us that it was easier to get a work visa if the applicant is Muslim, so my son’s passport was issued under a muslim name. However, after five years of work, Dulal was tragically killed in a road accident. As we wanted to bring his body back to the country, we faced problems due to the mismatch in names and documents. This is why we failed to bring my son’s body here.’

Morjina (22) used to work in a jute mill in Sirajganj. She heard an announcement about overseas job opportunity. She thought if she went abroad with a proper visa and some training, then she may be able to improve her living conditions.

She says, ‘Unfortunately, I was mistaken. I encountered many obstacles in the Middle East and I was abused physically and mentally.’

She continues, ‘My employer was cruel to me and did not let me eat properly. All the food was kept in one locked room. I was not used to the local food and began to fall sick.’

Morjina’s employer often hit her with whatever they could find nearby. ‘When they had guests over, I was locked in one room. Sometimes, I was lodged in the stables next to their camel. I was banned from communicating with anyone. After much effort I managed to flee and return to Bangladesh,’ she says.

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While talking to New Age Xtra, Professor Tasneen Siddiqui, chair of Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) and editor of the book, says, ‘RMMRU sketched the draft of both the Overseas Employment Policy 2006 and Overseas Employment and Migration act 2013. However, in the final versions many of our proposals were thrown out.’

Siddiqui says, ‘We had strongly urged that the dalals (brokers) be brought under a regulation with registration numbers from the recruiting agencies. However, the regulation of dalals has not been included anywhere as the government said it is not possible to regulate so many dalals. We urge that either the role of dalals be stopped with effective stops or they be brought under a proper system.’

‘Another issue that we strongly point out is the punishment given by the mobile court. The Tk 10 lakhs fine or 10 years of imprisonment is contradictory to the authority the mobile court can exercise. Many such issues are yet to be sorted out. We have had many dialogues with the government and we are still trying to ensure some standards for the migrant workers and that they can work in a safer environment,’ Siddiqui added.

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Professor Dr C. R. Abrar, who directs the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU), says, ‘Currently, labour recruitment is a bilateral issue between origin and destination countries. However, establishing minimum common standards related to wages, working hours, living conditions and recruitment procedures will help both origin and destination countries in governing migration. Therefore, multilateralism is the only way forward to bring positive changes to the flawed migration system.’

‘The UN has formed the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) to deal with these complex issues. Unfortunately, the GFMD recommendations are currently completely non-binding. Over the next few years, the GFMD should aim to create common minimum standards and create mechanisms that ensure countries maintain these standards,’ adds Abrar.

A big chunk of migrants that the country is sending are still untrained or unskilled. Without immediate strategies to address these issues from the authorities concerned, questions arise as to why we are looking forward to higher remittance targets in the years to come.