M I G R A T I O N – B A N G L A D E S H
Bangladesh is one of the world’s top exporters of labour in the world, with about 700,000 citizens finding jobs overseas every year. Among the more than 7.5 million expatriates currently working abroad, more than 3 million work in Middle Eastern countries alone, which is a popular destination for construction workers and day labourers, wishing to send remittances back home to their families.
Home to more than twenty lakh natives of Bangladesh—the highest in any one country—KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), is doubtless the most popular of them all, largely due to its high recruitment fees. Despite that statistic, however, Saudi Arabia is widely recognised as the setting for unfair conditions, underpayment, arduous working hours and exploitation of the workers who travel there to make their earnings.
Saudi-Bangladesh migration industry
Remittances sent by Bangladeshi workers are the second-largest source of foreign currency for the Bangladesh government, after those earned from exports of ready-made garments. In 2019, the remittances amounted to $18 billion, 60 percent of which were sent by the Bangladeshi workforce in Saudi Arabia, according to Arab News.
In this deeply exploitative global multi-billion-dollar migration industry, housemaids from Bangladesh were the most in demand with recruitment ratio reaching 21 percent in October 2019, the Saudi Gazette iterates the monthly periodic bulletin issued by the Gulf State’s Ministry of Labour and Social Development. More than 300,000 Bangladeshi female workers have travelled to Saudi Arabia since 1991, but a large number of them returned with stories of physical and sexual abuse and exploitation. Among them, many were found terribly disabled, molested, or deceased.
At the end of 2019, it was reported that a sum of 2,165 female workers came home over the preceding 21 months after persisting in inhumane conditions. Another 87 were brought back dead. And in the last five years, 500 bodies of female migrant workers were flown back home, at least 200 from Saudi Arabia alone, with more than 50 committing suicide.
Exploitation of workers
The complication first arises during recruitment. Workers are commonly recruited by unofficial brokers in Bangladesh. These dalals act as middlemen between official licensed recruitment agencies and rural workers, because most of the 1,200 licenced agencies are inaccessible to people living outside cities. And, usually, the middlemen lure in naive workers by first promising them high wages, but later trapping them in debt by demanding a much higher amount of money than the official maximum. Desperate, poverty-stricken, and in dire need of any route to survival, people from rural areas of the country fall prey to their fictitious promises, leading to Bangladesh having one of the highest labour emigration fees in the world.
Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP) claims that about one out of 10 of those migrants are women. These workers, oblivious to the deceptive words of the industry, are often misled with “false promises of salaries of about 20,000 taka ($237) a month by middlemen and rarely get job contracts”.
Due to weak labour laws and inadequate regulation of the ones that exist, female workers are regularly coerced by brokers, with a few among countless getting justice. The international companies, in contrast, profit from the savings made by recruiting through a third party without any personal costs, and hence are equally unperturbed by this issue. The fact that often migrant workers are not protected by local labour laws abroad, accumulates to the predicaments they encounter.
Labour laws in Middle Eastern countries especially, which adopt the kafala system, trap workers in their tormentors’ homes. The system legally binds domestic workers to their employers through their immigration status. This gives employers who sponsor the worker’s visa considerable control, which when combined with the isolated workplace of a private home, leaves them particularly vulnerable to situations of trafficking and forced labour.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that employers confiscate passports, withhold wages, and force migrants to work against their will, workers who leave jobs without their employers’ consent can be charged with “absconding” and can face imprisonment and deportation.
The trouble doesn’t end there. Even if the workers find a way to come home, their families have to pay for their flights and they have to return as penniless burdens, abhorred by family members, drowning in debt, and unlikely to ever see justice. Because even if they file a complaint, there’s almost zero chance of receiving any sizeable compensation. A study by GAATAW discloses that among the thousands of female workers who return to their homeland every year, only 318 have received compensation, averaging 9,200 BDT (109 USD) each from the government’s Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training in 2018. However, the fact that each of them had to spend somewhere between 10,000 to 100,000 BDT for migration in the first place. Not to even mention the physical and psychological they had to endure and the compensation that warrants.
A recent court decision in a particular case has called attention to the prevalence and extremity of the situation.
Abiron’s extensive trial
Abiron Begum Ansar, a 40-year-old domestic worker from Paikgachha in Khulna, was found dead in Riyadh on 24 March, 2019. Abiron had gone to Saudi Arabia in 2017, via a recruiting agency in contact with a local agent named Rabiul. There she worked for a household of eight people who deprived her of food and subjected her to extreme cruelties, like pouring hot water on her and shoving her head against a hot iron grill.
Upon later investigation, her family alleged that Abiron endured severe physical assault at her employer’s house. They said, “They started torturing her two weeks after she left. She would call us and cry…we begged the brokers here to bring her back, but no one listened to us.”
As the situation continued, Abiron soon lost contact with them.
Abiron’s “unrecognisable” body was brought to Bangladesh on 24 October, 2019, through the Wage Earners Welfare Board, after being kept in a Saudi mortuary for seven months. Her death certificate stated that she was murdered.
A fact-finding committee under the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) thereafter visited Abiron’s home in Paikgachha and talked to the victim’s family members. Following conversations with the recruiting agency, ministries and embassies, NHRC submitted a detailed report on 15 December that year saying that Abiron was tortured and beaten to death, emphasising on the negligence of the agent, recruiting agencies and government officials.
A case was then filed in Khulna under the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act, 2012 where NHRC recommended legal action, compensation for the murder and exemplary punishment to the mainly accused agent, Rabiul. The Bangladesh embassy later received the power of attorney and represented her family at the Saudi court, and the trial began on 16 December, 2020.
Nearly two months after the first official hearing of the case, Saudi court sentenced Ayesha al-Jizani to death for muder of her maid, Abiron on Sunday, 14 February. Jizani’s husband, Basem Salem, has been jailed for three years for destroying evidence, failing to help Begum access medical treatment and making her work outside the family home illegally, confirmed Ahmed Munirus Saleheen, a senior official at Bangladesh’s expatriate ministry. He has also been fined 50,000 Riyals. Their teenage son received a seven-month term in juvenile rehabilitation for not cooperating with Abiron Begum, according to the official statement from Riyadh.
Campaigners said that the court’s verdict was extremely uncommon.
“I have been working in the migration field for several years and I have never heard of such a verdict,” said Shakirul Islam, the head of the Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program, which deals with migrant rights in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen approved of the verdict, “I praise Saudi government for giving out this rare yet exemplary punishment.” The minister furthermore implored the Saudi government to investigate other cases of abuse carried out on domestic workers from Bangladesh.
The loitering and prolonged yet gradual development in Abiron’s case gives not only an eye-opening exposure to the conditions of migrant labourers but hope that justice will be served to more workers like her in the future.
A cycle of abuse
While Abiron Begum’s traumatic case may have been a rare instance of a fair trial, it was not a first in the repetitive occurrence of oppression in the Middle East country, that was widespread knowledge to all.
In a viral Facebook video in early November 2019, 25-year-old Sumi Akter voiced her story, “I perhaps won’t live longer. Please save me. They locked me up for 15 days and barely gave me any food. They burned my hands with hot oil.”
The video fostered protests in Dhaka against workers’ conditions and prompted the government spokesman Atiqur Rahman to say that Dhaka would extinguish rogue recruitment firms with related allegations.
Sumi was soon brought back to the capital on a flight on 15 November with 91 other Bangladeshi female workers, after the Saudi court had excused her departure from the country.
In regards to regulation on recruitment, a correlated response by Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen announced that the government would not ban women from going to Saudi Arabia for work regardless of the cases of abuse and illegal sale of workers. Nor where the regulations tightened to stop the exploitation of workers by illegal brokers.
Another girl aged 13, Nodi, arrived in Dhaka last October, expiring after spending a year in KSA. Her passport falsely identified her being 27-year-old and although the cause of death was deemed to be suicide, her family claimed it was otherwise due to visible signs of torture on her body.
“My daughter had been in trouble since she left for Saudi Arabia. We repeatedly told the recruiting agency about this but they did not take any steps,” said Nodi’s mother.
Similarly, Mosammat Begum’s death in Egypt remains an unsolved mystery till date. As questionable as it sounds, according to the Bangladesh embassy in Egypt, Mosammat Begum died after falling from the rooftop of a five-storey building on 29 May, 2019 even though she was originally sent to Saudi Arabia.
Hence, again and again, we see workers being tortured and killed at the hands of their employers who hold all power over them in KSA and the agents who are responsible for their safety being unresponsive at best and trapping them in their abusers home at worst.
BMET Director General Mohammad Shamsul Alam said the ministry and BMET had issued 12-point directives in December 2019 to ensure the safety of women workers. A year later still, Shamim Ahmed Chowdhury, secretary-general of the Association of International Recruiting Agencies (BAIRA), said that instead of holding the agencies responsible over the “cases of harassment or death of Bangladeshi domestic workers in KSA”, a larger share of the blame should be directed to the Saudi employers who maltreat the workers, in order to fully cease the problem at its roots.
Yet, as of date, Abiron Begum’s case remains an exception, with only fines being charged in others. Consequential action where all guilty parties are rightfully prosecuted is still infrequent.
In a world where employers and agencies are unethical and deceitful, and workers helpless and poverty-stricken, this seems to be a ghoulish reality no one has yet escaped. And are unlikely to escape unless both the governments of Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia take action to protect these vulnerable migrant workers.
Yashfeen Fatima Karim’s world revolves around scrumptious food, an engrossing book, or a Netflix series she can binge-watch.