Bangladesh is one of the top labor sending countries of the world. In the last decade, the number of Bangladeshis migrating abroad for employment has increased almost 100 times since the mid-1970s, when labor migration to the Gulf region commenced. Migrant workers have not only been contributing to the country's foreign exchange reserves, they alleviate the pressure to create local employment opportunities for the tens of thousands of people that enter the job market in Bangladesh each year. A number of studies have highlighted how migration not only contributes to the economic wellbeing of the members of migrant households; it also develops their human potential through access to nutrition, healthcare and education. With increases in purchasing power, migrant households also generate demand for goods and services at the local market. Therefore, migration triggers a range of positive outcomes for migrant households, local communities and the nation at large. Access to justice is a fundamental prerequisite to upholding the Rule of Law. The principle of equal treatment under the law means that refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants have an equal right to be treated fairly and in accordance with the law. For the Rule of Law to equally apply to refugees, migrants and asylum seekers they must have access to justice.
However, their access to justice has been undermined by both the government's hostile environment policies and the lack of resources afforded the systems put in place to make decisions shaping migrants lives. Due to their vulnerability, migrants often have most to lose when administrative decision making is poor, and are least able to effectively challenge it. The suspension of international flights as part of the government's Covid mitigation plan for a week from April 15, but now extended by another week till April 28, has left several thousand migrant workers, who are due to join work abroad on or before April 28, in difficulty. The government has arranged for special flights to five destination countries Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Singapore but a chaotic situation is reported to have taken over the special flight arrangement many workers have reported on recently, struggled to get return tickets reissued for going back to workplace over the past few days. There has, moreover, been a sudden increase in air fare. Air fare to the Middle East countries, especially Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman and Qatar, is reported to have increased by Tk 40,000-70,000. At the same time, the strict restrictions on public movement have made it difficult for many, staying in different parts of the country, to reach the capital.
A number of workers say that they had to pay 10-50 times higher than the usual fare to reach Dhaka to catch return flights. Most workers, after reaching the capital spending an exorbitant amount of money on fare, are kept in waiting for return tickets by the airlines, which are faced with a backlog of tickets issued and are now trying to serialize them. In such a situation, many are forced to live in hotels. About 20,000-25,000 migrant workers need, keeping to a Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies and the Association of Travel Agents of Bangladesh estimate, to catch their return flights in the week beginning on April 14. The suspension of international flights for another week from April 22 will add to the backlog and the woes of the workers. Aggrieved workers, meanwhile, have continued demonstrations in front of the Biman Bangladesh Airlines office and Saudi Arabian Airlines office in the capital for the past four days. The government, which planned to arrange for about 100 special flights a week, has not been able to arrange the declared number of flights while migrant workers, some faced with the problem of the expiry of visa and valid work permit, have demanded more special flights. Besides, migrant workers are also reportedly faced with the problem of getting tested for Covid-19 on time, which is mandatory for all workers aspiring to go abroad. Although the migrants who return routinely report abuse, the government still does not have a comprehensive record of labor rights violation.
It does not either have a proper mechanism that could create avenues for workers to claim their unpaid wage and compensation for death and injury at work. The director of the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training has blamed the workers 'unwilling to cooperate with the government' for the situation. In reality, as migrant worker rights activists say, it is the unsympathetic labor wings of Bangladesh missions and a complex bureaucracy that makes justice and compensation nearly unattainable for workers. The harrowing experience of the families of deceased workers in repatriating the bodies to Bangladesh says how unfriendly the system is towards the migrants. In 2018, the ministry concerned visited Saudi Arabia to have a first-hand account of worker situations and recommended that the smart cards issued by the BMET should also include information on Saudi recruitment agencies and employer details. They recommended making it obligatory for the recruitment agencies in Bangladesh to inform the government of any worker crisis. The recommendations remained unimplemented and exploitation continued unabated. Labor migration is a cross- border issue and any labor rights violation within this transnational labor supply chain needs to be addressed through international diplomacy.
The government must immediately bring the issue of workers abuse in Middle Eastern countries to the attention of international bodies including the Colombo Process, Bali Process and Abu Dhabi dialogue. It must initiate a diplomatic dialogue with Saudi Arabia and other countries so that the authorities there take the issue of worker rights violation seriously and penalize abusive employers. Also employment benefits, of migrant workers have come to be an issue of concern since the COVID-19 outbreak. Millions of migrant workers are reported to have suffered from job loss and wage theft and returned to their countries of origin empty-handed. Bangladesh, which has about 12 million migrant workers in about 170 countries, has also seen a surge in reverse migration since early 2020.
The number of migrant workers who returned home hovers around 2-5 lakh and most of them have lost their job and suffered wage theft. Millions of workers across the world have, as migrant rights activists said in an international conference on Tuesday, been deprived of their rightful wages and benefits by employers, pushing the workers to uncertainty amidst the pandemic. The speakers also focused on the absence of initiatives of international agencies and governments of the countries of origin and destination in ensuring labor rights and the reintegration of migrants who returned. Foreign missions of the countries of origin have also failed to stand by the migrants at a time when many were in need of support more than ever.
Wages should be protected in any situation, more so in times of emergency. Wage theft is a global agenda and should be prioritized by governments of the countries of origin and destination and by the United Nations and other international agencies. Governments of the countries of origin should, as rights activists say, blacklist the companies and employers that have not paid wages and benefits to workers and negotiate with the governments of the destination countries to make the employers pay the workers. Bangladesh has so far not been reported to take any effective action to help migrant workers faced with wage theft in destination countries nor has the country been able to take any reintegration program to incorporate migrant workers who returned in the local economy. The government spoke of reintegration and rehabilitation to better use the skills of such migrant workers on several occasions, but has not as yet been able to do anything to this end. A lack of political will and the unwillingness of the government to support the cause of migrant workers are what have come to leave them in a sorry state in destination countries amidst the pandemic.
The government must, therefore, stand by the migrant workers who have returned home and who are in need of support in destination countries. Bangladesh missions abroad must also take steps to help migrant workers. The protection of migrant worker rights is a cross-border issue and it must be dealt with in view of the international nature of the problem. The Bangladesh government must take up its concern with international forums to ensure the well-being of migrant workers abroad. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 (General Assembly resolution 217 A) as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations. It sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected and it has been translated into over 500 languages.
The UDHR is widely recognized as having inspired, and paved the way for, the adoption of more than seventy human rights treaties, applied today on a permanent basis at global and regional levels. Despite the severity of Covid-19, it is Bangladesh's migrants who kept the national economy stable. It is time that we pay due respect and value the contribution of remittance earners by ensuring their access to justice and minimizing the problems they encounter during recruitment. Regularizing intermediaries, making the recruiting agencies accountable and strengthening the arbitration mechanism of bmet are essential elements of that process.
Rayhan Ahmed Topader is a writer and columnist.
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