Migrant workers: Mitigating their sufferings in host countries

Muhammad Zamir | Published: January 06, 2019 20:30:59 | Updated: January 09, 2019 21:31:03

Migrants verify their documents at a migrant welfare desk in Dhaka's Hazrat Shahjahal International Airport.            —Photo: IOM  

Like many other developing countries, Bangladesh is very much dependent on the remittance inflow that we receive from our expatriate workers. This receives particular attention as it helps us not only to meet trade deficit but also to add to foreign exchange reserve. In addition, this process enables us to find employment abroad for our growing population. Employment abroad has also assisted in socio-economic development in the rural regions. Such an evolution has encouraged women to seek expatriate employment abroad - particularly in the Middle East and Malaysia.

At this point of time we have nearly nine million persons of Bangladeshi origin working as expatriate workers in several countries in the Far East, South East Asia and in the Middle East. There are also nearly half a million persons of Bangladeshi origin who have acquired citizenships of foreign countries and settled there. But they continue to support their relatives back home in Bangladesh through foreign remittance.

The inflow of wage earners remittance to Bangladesh reached US $ 5.11 billion in the first four months of the current fiscal year (July-October). This was an increase by 12.17 per cent for the same period in the previous fiscal year. This has possibly been encouraged due to depreciating mode of the local currency against the US Dollar in recent months. Many economists heaved a sigh of relief.

This feeling of happiness was however not shared by many sociologists. They had justifiable reasons for their anxiety. A recent report by the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) detailed impact of migration on household income, expenditure and poverty. A total of 6,143 households came under this survey. This included households dependent on international migrants, on internal migrants and also non-migrant households.

Three interesting elements have emerged from this survey: (a) remittance from male migrants has decreased by 11 per cent but remittance  from female migrants has increased; (b) it takes male migrants at least 39 months to recover the money invested to go abroad. For a female migrant, it takes less than a year to earn the money back; and (c) an extra year as a migrant increases the income of male migrants by 1.7 per cent and 0.8 per cent for female migrants.

It has been pointed out in the report that Bangladeshis who travel to the Gulf and the South East Asian countries leave behind a trail of loans undertaken to enable them to meet the large, upfront costs associated with finding jobs as expatriate workers. This is affecting family members they leave behind in Bangladesh.

The media has also been reporting in the recent past of thousands of cases of women who travelled abroad to work and then found themselves as victims of sexual exploitation and also inhuman treatment not consistent with international legal regulations and rights pertaining to expatriate workers. Many of these victims have in the last few months have been repatriated to Bangladesh with the help of Bangladeshi diplomatic missions. They have narrated how they were abused abroad and also fooled by many Bangladeshi manpower agents who had arranged for them to go to foreign countries.

It is nevertheless encouraging to note that the relevant authorities of the Bangladesh government have been taking some important steps to reduce corruption within this sector and bring forth greater accountability. It is hoped that the situation with regard to the expatriate workforce - their recruitment and their working conditions - will improve through government-to-government agreements.

INDIAN CASE: The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) forwarded to me in the first week of November certain facts that indicate that hundreds of thousands of Indian migrant workers have to face terrible and miserable conditions while working abroad.

According to data tabled in the Indian Parliament in April 2018, (10th attachment) there are 8.77 million Indians in six Gulf countries, namely Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Apparently, during the first half of this financial year alone (between April-September 2018), blue-collared Indian workers in these countries have remitted US$ 33.47 billion back home.

Indians working in Gulf countries accounted for more than half of the remittance that India received from all over the world during the period 2012-2017. While India received a total of US$ 410.33 billion in remittances from the world over, remittances from the Gulf countries accounted for US$ 209.07 billion. According to World Bank estimates, UAE topped the list of Gulf countries from which remittances were received with US$ 72.30 billion, followed by Saudi Arabia (US$ 62.60 billion); Kuwait (US$ 25.77 billion); Qatar (US$ 22.57 billion); Oman (US$ 18.63 billion). Bahrain came last with US$ 7.19 Billion.

It would be interesting to note here that Indian workers in the UAE remitted during 2012-2017 more remittances than Indians in USA - US$ 68.37 billion or from the UK- US$ 23 billion or from Canada- US$ 17.3 billion. Incidentally, it has also been revealed that during this period remittances from Bangladesh to India stood at US$ 4.7 billion.

However, the human cost of such earnings by Indian citizens has been immense in the Middle East. It has not been so in the context of Bangladesh.

In August 2018, CHRI submitted a request for information under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act) to the Indian Union Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) seeking the following information - (1) the year-wise list of the names, age, sex, and occupation of Indian workers who died in the countries of Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates between 01 January, 2012 till date; and (2) the cause of death as mentioned in the death certificates of every deceased Indian worker for the same period.

This recent CHRI RTI intervention and research of proceedings in parliament has revealed that between 2012 and mid-2018 more than 24,570 Indian workers died in these Gulf countries. The Indian embassy in the UAE has however refused to provide comprehensive data and has cited the provision of Section 8(1) (j) of the Indian RTI Act which exempts the disclosure of personal information which may cause unwarranted invasion of privacy of the individual or where the disclosure has no relationship to any public activity or interest. Nevertheless, on the basis of the disclosed data, it works out that an average of more than 10 deaths per day has taken place with regard to Indian workers in this region. For every US$ 1.0 billion they remitted to India during the same period there were at least 117 deaths of Indian workers in Gulf countries.

The CHRI on the basis of available information has pointed out that 10,416 deaths occurred in Saudi Arabia during the period while Bahrain accounted for the least number - 1,317 deaths. The most number of deaths occurred in 2015 - 4,702, whereas the smallest number was reported in 2012 - 2,375. By July-August 2018, already 1,656 deaths have however occurred.

These statistics however do not really clarify the causes of deaths - whether these were due to natural causes and illness or related to workplace-oriented.

The CHRI has noted that their efforts in this regard have not been an attempt "to label the remittances from the Gulf as blood money. Instead the purpose of this comparative analysis is to highlight the shockingly large number of deaths of Indian Workers in Gulf countries". This institution has also pointed out that that "this phenomenon requires urgent examination. It is hoped that the Central Government will start this exercise by making more information about deaths of Indian Workers in these countries public. There is an urgent need to commission experts to study the cause of deaths - especially the large number of deaths labelled in Qatar as 'natural deaths'".

COMMON SOUTH ASIAN EFFORT: In any case, as evidenced through initiatives undertaken by several Indian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and some in Bangladesh, there should be a common South Asian effort to examine the conditions in which our diaspora from South Asia work abroad. The vast majority of them are involved in the construction sector and also associated with improving the infrastructure network. They are mostly unskilled and semi-skilled and have to work under difficult circumstances. Their health, security, work conditions and labour standards need to be carefully monitored. That might reduce the unfortunate trend of workers dying abroad from preventable causes. We need to examine the conditions under which the migrant workers work abroad and identify measures that will prevent avoidable deaths.

Those from Sri Lanka and the Philippines in general and a certain section from India and Pakistan are involved in management activities or the health sector or with financial institutions. Such personnel are relatively well paid and have few problems.

The canvas associated with migrant workers is wide and diverse. We have to remember that they are a valuable section of our community and need to be helped whenever they face any challenge. Our diplomatic missions abroad in these countries have an important role to play. Officers associated with migrant welfare and with consular activities also need to be persuaded to learn the local language so that they can carry out their activities smoothly and effectively. That will make a major difference.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.


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