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Breaking the hierarchy of deaths

  • Published at 12:00 am October 30th, 2019
web-Bangladeshi Migrant Workers Abroad
Photo: RAJIB DHAR

Our silence regarding the deaths of migrant workers must end

If someone is killed and nobody cries for justice, does it make a murder?

This, of course, is a cruel question, but it is not one that is nonsensical. A murder is, rationally, a murder no matter its popular appeal. But our social reality exclaims that not all enforced killings are perceived as murders, but as natural events that are unnatural by condition alone. Some deaths, thereby, are more deadly than others.

Of course, death of a person leaves the family of the person empty and, to them, a murder is always a murder. However, when the killings are structural, there comes an obligation of the community to call for justice and address the structural faults that create the process of the murders. 

This is what we have failed to do. When a nation is repeatedly broken down on the basis of economic class, the death of a person of one class fails to touch the consciousness of the nation.

This happens because the powers- that-be often rob us of our senses. Exploitation and class apartheid is sometimes conditioned into our senses such that we overlook injustices. 

Just as we shoo away beggars on the street without a second thought towards their economic deprivation, so are we conditioned to desensitize the deaths of members of the working class. Such is the mechanism of post-colonial colonization: It blinds us without damaging our optics. 

Therefore, even when workers are exploited to death, they do not often realize that exploitation and accept it, unless there is a union or other organizations that work to build class consciousness and cultivate vision within the community. This does not happen at all in cases where workers do not work as communities, but as individuals and their woes fall to themselves individually.

Which is the case for female workers who travel to the middle east to work as domestic servants. The torture, exploitation, and sexual assaults they face leave them so powerless, due to the social perceptions surrounding the nature of the crime, they do not even file cases or demand justice. 

They simply accept their fate as such and the crime remains, simply, an event. The workers who are tortured are so disgusted by their experiences that they do not even want to stay back in the country of their work until their cases are resolved. Therefore, justice remains undone.

But these crimes are not simply individual, but structural. The women sent to the middle east are sent through brokers who often lie to their clients to make them agree to work that are not detailed to them. Their passports are forcefully kept and they are sold to their employers for an amount that the workers are told to pay if they want to get out, much in the fashion that women are enslaved into prostitution in Bangladeshi brothels. Once the women start working, the true nature of the work gets exposed as the employers see violating their servants’ rights as their right. And even after the workers flee back home, they must put in writing that their rights “have not been violated.” Thereby, bringing the brokers to book becomes impossible.

The problem here is, of course, structural; the avoidance of liability is designed into the system. The exploiters, ie, brokers, are given an unwritten indemnity by the government. However, the demands of structural change in this sector has not been social. We do not see all quarters of the society voicing their concerns regarding this egregious violation of human and labour rights. This happens because of two reasons: Our stratification that has rendered “society” and “community” as pipe dreams and our tendency to blame individuals and exempt institutions.  

Let us start with the first problem. Why is it that a structural business of essentially selling our citizens to slavery often goes largely unchallenged? Much of it can be attributed to destitute community-buiding and class apertheid. When a deformed capitalism is born out of a post-colonial hotchpotch that fails to dismantle colonial feudalism, and strictly stratified economic classes are generated, those outside one’s class do not touch the consciousness of those within.

Therefore, the stories of those outside of the middle and upper classes never shake the core of the nation. The consciousness of the nation is enclosed within the consciousness of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois. 

Secondly, our cries for justice are louder when we can ascertain a single perpetrator and becomes meek when the perpetrator is structural. This is why the cries for justice during the Abrar murder centred around hanging the killers, but felt shy of challenging the system of violence that produced those killers.

Even then, the demand for justice for Abrar had a nationwide appeal that the migrant worker abuse cases do not get. We do not see people coming down to streets and demanding justice for Bilkis, a worker whose corpse was thrown into a desert by her employer, the way they came down to demand justice for Abrar. The sorry truth is that Abrar was class continuous to our middle class, Bilkis was not.

Don’t get me wrong. It is just for us to demand justice for Abrar to the highest of our ability, which I personally have done, but it is also our obligation to seek justice for Bilkis. 

Sadly, even when we organize human chains for the rights of our abused migrant workers, something that we will do in front of the press club this Friday, we know that not many will show up due to the lack of class continuity. But we still must speak. And when we speak, we must not only speak of how despicable the Saudi employers are to abuse our citizens, we must also speak of the failure of our authorities to protect those citizens. 

We have failed to ensure equality, even in death. But this must change. We must hold our government accountable, as it is its responsibility to protect the rights of our migrants, to bring the brokers to books, ensure that our outgoing workers receive full information about their work, and that they not be sold to slavery by the dishonest agencies. Failing to do that, our government must stop sending workers to Saudi Arabia at least, until the situation ameliorates, following the precedent of other countries that have done so.

No nation can survive without a communal consciousness. We must build that consciousness as a nation, or our nation will cease to exist. 

We demand justice for the abused migrant workers and call upon the government to take immediate action. 

Anupam Debashis Roy is the Editor-at-large at Muktiforum. He can be reached at [email protected]