Migration of female workers: Focusing on language learning, skills training

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury   | Published: June 02, 2019 20:58:05 | Updated: July 11, 2019 15:54:10

Export earnings and remittances from migrant Bangladeshi workers have been keeping the foreign currency reserve of Bangladesh buoyant over the past few decades. Contribution of remittance to the reserve has been increasing every year. In the first ten months of the current fiscal year (2018-2019), migrant workers sent remittances worth $ 13.29 billion as against $ 12.09 billion in the corresponding period of the previous fiscal registering an increase of 9.93 per cent. The country's total foreign exchange reserve in the fiscal 2017-2018 stood at $ 32.94 billion in which the share of remittance was $ 14.98 billion.

Given this stupendous importance of migrant workers' remittance in the economy, the government has been focusing on various ways through which the process of sending remittance can be made easy for migrant workers. Additionally, the government has also been trying to facilitate overseas jobseekers, including women job seekers, to find jobs abroad and work there legally.

Sending female workers abroad from the country began around the early nineties. According to the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET), nearly 800,000 Bangladeshi women migrated to work abroad between 1991 and April 2019. A study by the United Nations, titled "External Market Analysis for Women Migrant Workers of Bangladesh", has reported that around 95 per cent of the Bangladeshi female migrant workers are serving as domestic help.

Like their male counterparts, a significant portion of the female migrant workers is headed for the Arab countries. The top Bangladeshi women recruiting countries include United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Mauritius, Kuwait, Malaysia, Bahrain, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Unlike their male counterparts, as migration experts have pointed out, women migrant workers are less likely to waste their earnings. Most of them send a substantial amount of their monthly earnings to their families back home. This is why, they are more likely to contribute to the country's remittances, though their overall salaries may be less than those of the male workers. However, these female workers are facing severe problems in the foreign countries, especially in the Gulf states. Their problems need to be addressed urgently in order to sustain female workers' migration and ensure their wellbeing in foreign lands.

ALARMING NUMBER OF DEATHS OF FEMALE MIGRANT WORKERS: A number of dailies have recently reported that 294 Bangladeshi female migrant workers died abroad over the past three years. The data was compiled by the BRAC migration programme and confirmed by officials of the Wage Earners' Welfare Board of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment Ministry.

Of the total number of deaths, at least 110 female workers died of stroke, 50 in accidents and 59 had normal deaths. Cause of deaths of 31 workers was mentioned as 'due to unknown reasons'. Furthermore, at least 44 of the female workers had committed suicide. Country-wise, 112 female workers died in the KSA, 62 in Jordan, 42 in Lebanon, 34 in Oman and 26 in the UAE.

BRAC migration programme's head Shariful Hasan told FE, "While cause of deaths like stroke and accidents are normal, there are serious concerns regarding the deaths which are marked under 'unknown reasons' and 'suicide'." He pointed out that the number of suicides by female migrant workers per year has been on the rise. One woman worker had committed suicide abroad in 2016, 12 in 2017, 23 in 2018 and already eight this year till February 2019.

TORTURE AND HARASSMENT: Some migration experts and the family members of the deceased have alleged that these female workers have killed themselves because of the extremely strenuous workload and torture that they faced at their workplaces. International non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like Human Rights Watch (HRW) have for long been pointing to the Kafala system prevalent in the Gulf States as the reason behind suicides and deaths of migrant workers in the Gulf States. The Kafala system, prevalent in Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, KSA and the UAE, requires all unskilled migrant workers to have an in-country sponsor. The sponsor is responsible for their visa and legal status. Under the system, if a migrant worker wants to quit a bad boss, he or she will eventually lose passport and work visa, followed by arrest and deportation.

The practice has been criticised time and again by human rights organisations as it opens up opportunities for employers to exploit workers- often forcing them to work long hours, not paying their salaries on time, taking away their passports, and beating or torturing them. The system also allows the sponsor to transfer the migrant worker to another employer disregarding the incumbent's consent.

Besides the Kafala system, female migrant workers also face additional problems in the form of language barriers and lack of knowledge about how to seek help. It has been revealed by many female migrant workers who returned in the past few years that they were forced to work from dawn till late into the night. Inability to work due to illnesses or any other problem almost always led to beatings at the hands of employers. Interviews conducted by HRW and others have revealed that as punishment, these workers are often kept without food or beaten up with blunt or heated objects.

Besides working anywhere between 16 hours to 21 hours of the day, many of these migrant workers are allegedly not paid regular monthly salaries by their employers. Most of these workers do not get a single day-off and have to work seven days a week throughout the year.

Some female migrant workers alleged facing sexual abuse. Victims of sexual abuse who manage to get help and return to Bangladesh are often abandoned by their families. Such abuse and the physical and mental stress sometimes become so unbearable for some female workers that they take their own lives. Others try to live through the humiliation and torture in order to support their families back home.

In January last year, the Philippines stopped sending domestic workers to Kuwait after a Filipino migrant worker was found dead in a freezer in a house where she worked in Kuwait. Manila called the incident a "pattern of abuse" in the Gulf state. Two months later, in March 2018, Kuwait was forced to sign a deal with the Philippines. Under the agreement, domestic workers from the Philippines now have the right to retain their passports as well as the right to refuse being transferred to other employers.

Around the same time in Qatar, the cabinet adopted a law in 2018 that provided some degree of protection to nearly 174,000 migrant domestic workers of the country. The law guarantees domestic workers a maximum 10-hour workday, a weekly rest day, three weeks of annual leave, an end-of-service payment of at least three weeks per year, and healthcare benefits.

Still the HRW criticised this law as they deemed it to be "weaker than the Labour Law and does not fully conform to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention, the global treaty on domestic workers' rights." HRW said that the law did not mention how it will be enforced and did not state how migrant domestic workers can claim their rights if they have been breached except in cases of compensation for work injuries.

WAY FORWARD: Migration experts in Bangladesh have asked the government to consider steps taken by India to help their migrant workers. For example, since 2010, India has set up two resource centres in Sharjah and Dubai. The two centres provide nearly six million Indian migrants in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, KSA, UAE and Oman with a 24 hour multilingual toll-free helpline, counselling and educating them about their rights.

The government of Bangladesh can also help the female migrant workers going to the Gulf States by teaching them basic Arabic and organising orientation courses focussed on cultural and other aspects of the foreign country they are going to.

Some migration experts have recommended a strategy that Bangladesh should look towards South-east Asian, European and North American countries for sending female migrant workers. In order to tap these markets, the related government departments should ensure skills training to potential female workers who can apply for positions like nurses, caregivers, babysitters, drivers (domestic taxi cab), receptionists, cashiers and front desk attendants in these countries.



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