Govt prioritises migrant numbers over safety

The government pushes to increase labour migration, but fails to ensure a fair process, say migration experts.

Migrant workers of BangladeshFile photo

A woman from Cumilla went to Saudi Arabia as a worker at an expense of Tk 150,000. She worked there as a domestic help for three months but received no salary. She had to work up to 18 hours a day, though she was supposed to work for eight hours daily. Moreover, she was also tortured.

Unable to cope with the situation, she returned home and lodged a complaint with the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) against the recruiting agency that sent her abroad. Later, the agency owner paid her Tk 30,000 as compensation.

The victim disclosed her ordeal at a public testimony event of migrant workers at the National Press Club recently.

Omar Faruk, another migrant worker from Keraniganj, said he went to Lebanon 12 years ago and returned home during the Covid-19 pandemic. A good amount was deducted from his salary as insurance, healthcare and transport fee during his stay in Lebanon, but he did not get it back while returning home.

A record number of workers – 1.1 million – migrated from Bangladesh to different countries in the previous year. But they are being deprived of their basic rights, including non-availability of contracted jobs, non-payment of salaries and lack of legal protection. The number of migrant workers have increased, but the issue of their protection remains overlooked.

Bangladesh signed the global compact on migration in 2021 to ensure legal protection of migrant workers, but they are still being denied fair wages.

Individuals involved with migration said labour sending countries like Bangladesh are failing to safeguard their workers in the destination countries. The United Nations also could not make the host countries fulfil their responsibilities.

The government here said it is committed to ensuring safe and ethical migration and is working to raise public awareness in this regard.

According to BMET statistics, 1.1 million people received clearance from the authority for going to different countries in 2022. Of them, 612,418 received clearance certificates for going to Saudi Arabia, 179,612 for going to Oman and 101,775 for going to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Some 105,466 of the workers were female.

The number of outbound workers was 1.08 million in 2017 while the figure was below the one million mark in the previous years.

Industry insiders said the labour migration dropped sharply in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic as migration remained suspended for several months in a row. Only 217,669 workers migrated to different countries in the year and the number rose to 617,209 in the following year.

Experts said the government has laid emphasis on sending more and more workers abroad but has failed to ensure a fair and regular migration and prepare skilled outbound workers. This is why an increasing number of workers are being deceived in destination countries. Many of them do not get jobs as per their contracts and return home empty-handed.

Also, some are becoming victims of human trafficking to countries like Vietnam and Cambodia that easily grants worker visas.

CR Abrar, executive director of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) said, “The government is reluctant to perform its duties towards the migrant workers though they keep the wheel of economy rolling by sending remittance."

“The government’s attitude towards migrant workers becomes evident when those who raise their voices at the embassies for fair demands get labelled as conspirators. On the flip side, the sole responsibility of protecting migrant workers does not lie only with Bangladesh, the host countries also have a role to play. As the workers are contributing to their economies, they have to ensure the workers’ protection. The United Nations needs to play an active role here.”

On 30 December last year, RMMRU published a report titled ‘Labour Migration from Bangladesh 2022: Achievements and Challenges’. During the report launch it was said that even though migration increased in 2022, the remittance growth was negative. Each year, a significant number of workers are deceived while going to their destination countries. After landing abroad, they don’t get their desired jobs. Many of them have to take more money from their homes to pay for their journey back to Bangladesh.

Bangladesh Nari Sramik Kendra (BNSK) executive director Sumaiya Islam told Prothom Alo, to ensure systematic migration, the countries sending the migrants and the countries receiving them have to pay special attention on two areas, social security and complete implementation of the legal system.

She said that the countries which take in migrant workers leave legal and social responsibilities on the countries that are sending the workers. Even though the number of migrant workers from Bangladesh has increased, the security issues still persist.

Issues like having to spend a fortune for visa due to middlemen, not getting the promised job once reaching the destination country and facing physical and mental torture still remain. Emphasis has to be given to fix these issues, Sumaiya added.