Migrant workers and their misery


How can we protect them?

Bangladesh, like many other developing countries, is dependent on the remittance inflow from our expatriate workers. This helps us not only to meet our balance of trade deficit but also to add to our foreign exchange reserve. In addition, it enables us to find employment abroad for our growing population, and assist in socio-economic development in the rural regions in our country.

At this point in time, we have nearly nine million Bangladeshi origin working people as expatriate workers in several countries in the Far East, South East Asia, and the Middle East.

There are also nearly half a million Bangladeshis who have acquired foreign nationalities and settled down. They also continue to support their relatives in Bangladesh by remitting financial support for their family members.

On November 7, 2018, our media reported that the inflow of wage earners remittance to Bangladesh had reached $5.11bn in the first four months of the current fiscal year (July-October).

Analysts have indicated that this process has possibly been encouraged due to the depreciating mode of the local currency against the US dollar in recent months. This was an increase of 12.17% for the same period in the previous fiscal year. Many economists heaved a sigh of relief.

This feeling of happiness was however not reflected by some sociologists who have drawn attention to the other factor within the migrant matrix — miserable conditions and social challenges that expatriate workers have to withstand and overcome within their work-paradigm, individually, and collectively.

In this regard, reference was made to a recent report by the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) detailing the impact of migration on household income, expenditure, and poverty. It has been pointed out that Bangladeshis who travel to the Gulf and the Southeast 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 — affecting family members in Bangladesh.

The media has also reported 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 — they have also narrated how they were also fooled by many Bangladeshi manpower agents who had arranged for them to go to foreign countries.

It has been 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. This lack of consistency with international regulatory expectations has also been noted in the context of treatment of migrant expatriate workers from India.

Recent Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) 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 CHRI on the basis of available information has also pointed out that 10,416 deaths occurred in Saudi Arabia during the period while Bahrain accounted for 1,317 deaths. The statistics, however, do not really clarify the cause of deaths — whether it was due to natural causes and illness or workplace oriented.

This institution has also pointed out that this phenomenon requires urgent examination. It is hoped that the 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.”

In any case, as evidenced through the initiative undertaken by several Indian 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. We need to examine the conditions under which migrant workers work abroad and identify measures that will prevent avoidable deaths.

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 relevant countries also 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, visit sites where they are involved in risky work and carry out their activities with sincerity. That will make a major difference. Our migrant expatriate workers employed abroad should not feel that they have no one to listen to their grievances.


Muhammad Zamir,

a former Ambassador is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance, can be reached at muhammadzamir0@gmail.com