The rising woes of female migrant workers

Nashir Uddin | Published: June 22, 2018 21:37:31 | Updated: June 23, 2018 21:30:19

Cases related to abuses and harassments of Bangladeshi female migrant workers in the Middle East (ME), especially in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), have marked a significant rise in recent times. The number of female workers returning every month from ME now stands at 200-300.

People have come across a series of terrible stories in the news outlets highlighting the pitiable plight of female migrant workers who returned home helpless, empty-handed and traumatised.

When a female migrant worker moves to work abroad, she usually goes through a more elaborate process compared to her male counterparts. But, some of these workers are coming back home in droves within a few months of their stay abroad with shattered hopes. In addition, the returnee women are subjected to intense media coverage and scrutiny, which in some cases aggravate the situation further for them. The recent reports of unwillingness of families to welcome back a section of these workers speak volumes about their untold sufferings.

Bangladesh has so far sent some 0.74 million female workers to KSA and some other ME countries. Over 0.24 million went to KSA since signing of an agreement between Bangladesh and the kingdom in 2015. Of them, more than 4,000 returned during the past three years on allegations of workplace exploitations. Authorities say 2,641 women returned in 2017 alone. Nearly 1,000 women have returned since the beginning of the current year. Of them, a significant portion returned during the weeks preceding the Eid-ul-Fitr. Many more are reported to be waiting for return at safe homes and immigration camps in KSA.

These female workers complained of non-payment, underpayment or delayed payment, while many suffered tortures beyond description at the hands of their employers. Many complain of physical assault, mental agony, sexual violence, harassment, and modern-day slavery-like conditions.

Women workers go through multidimensional difficulties in the destination countries. A study by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reveals that many female workers in ME ink employment deeds that they themselves are unable to comprehend, and hence it does not shield them from discrimination and abuse. Other abuses aside, the ill-treated women in KSA are often forced to work for unlimited hours in the households in exchange for a very low pay. The authorities there are doing little to rein in their citizens' criminal behaviour and protect the female workers' rights. Rights organisation Ain o Salish Kendra earlier reported about receiving a number of requests from the victims' families, which indicate the horrific situation many female migrants are in.

Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) in a study revealed that the cost of overseas migration is higher than the government-fixed rate, which often benefits the brokers at both the countries of origin and the destination. Since corruption is omnipresent at almost every stage of the recruitment process, the issue of fraudulent brokers often remains substantially unaddressed. Besides, procedural difficulties, delayed and long recruitment processes with verbal and informal agreements of employment intensify the migrant workers' vulnerability. Yet another issue is that, most of the pre-departure training focuses on hard skills, whereas soft skills are essential especially for the female workers who have to protect themselves against odds on foreign soil.

The female workers from Bangladesh have gone to KSA following the agreement signed by the government in this regard. Allegation is rife that proper market assessment was not done beforehand by the government officials. The government, while negotiating the overseas employment of female workers, should strictly ensure that they enjoy legitimate rights like defined working hours, fair wage, workplace safety, rest and recreation facility, overtime, leave, freedom of movement, treatment cost, and legal support when needed. There can also be government-to-government (G2G) arrangements stipulating the safety, personal rights and welfare schemes for these workers.

Ensuring that the female migrants get modern communication and connectivity facilities like using email and social media for their confidence-building and personal safety can be a smart move. Female workers should go abroad with a basic understanding of the destination country's culture, adequate training on necessary hard and soft skills and sufficient knowledge of practical working environment there. They should also be made aware of the overseas safety and security issues -- especially the protective measures on violence against women and sexual harassment.

Meanwhile, the Bangladesh government should lobby with the KSA authorities on the issue of monitoring contract violations by employers and agents, and taking appropriate measures against the errant persons and organisations. There is a growing need for specific arrangements to ensure the safety of workers by way of visiting their workplaces, responding to their queries cum complaints, and extending consular services to them. Also, actions are required to arrange compensations for those denied of their rightful benefits, increase financial support for stranded workers' repatriation, and emergency treatment for the distressed.

A project can be launched under the Wage Earners' Welfare Board on financial and psycho-social reintegration for the returnee female workers. Besides, Bangladesh foreign mission officials responsible for migration should be proactive in dealing with their problems.

The government should look seriously into the recent rise in the abuses of women migrant workers and take actions against those responsible. It should review its migration policy to reduce costs and put an end to harassment in the process. It should also explore alternative markets to reduce over-dependence on Middle Eastern states for sending female workers as domestic helps.

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