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A deteriorating crisis

  • Published at 10:54 pm December 22nd, 2019
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File photo: Migrant workers at Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

Migrant workers face innumerable risks overseas

In recent times, the return of migrant workers in the face of savage treatment from employers in Middle Eastern countries has topped the headlines, and with many female workers coming back with tales of terror, a need is felt to carry out thorough research about the different dimensions of overseas employment, starting from work conditions, to the process of hiring a worker, to the lack of a monitoring system in a foreign nation. 

As per a Bangla Tribune report, from 2005 until November this year, 40,806 bodies of expatriate workers have come back to Bangladesh. In the last four years, 479 dead bodies of women have come back from overseas. As per Brac Migration Program, almost all of the dead have come back from the Middle East. The number of suicides is 44.

There has not been any research about the untimely death of expatriates, and organizations which work with migrant workers are worried about death overseas. Analyzing deaths in the last four years, it has come to light that almost 80% of deaths happened suddenly and the victims were between ages 28 and 40.

Unprepared for an intense summer 

It is believed that many of the workers face difficulty working in very hot conditions over a long period of time and, without proper knowledge about hydration and rest, their health conditions deteriorate. 

On the other hand, unless the employer is keen to ensure optimum health of the worker and introduce breaks during work, ideas about health will bring little benefit. The problem lies in the lack of understanding about ethical working environments among employers in these countries.

Time and again, the common complaint from migrant workers has been about long working hours without a single day off during the week.

Many women have alleged that when they become ill after back-breaking work without holidays, the employers are either unwilling to provide any medical attention or rebuke them for becoming sick.

Minister for Expatriate Welfare and Employment, Imran Ahmed, said: “In the Middle Eastern countries, the heat often rises over 40 to 50 degrees and many die of heat strokes; I mentioned at a seminar that we need to brief our workers about drinking water and safety measures in hot countries.”

Rhetoric alone won’t stop suicides

The common explanation given for suicides is that the worker had taken a huge loan while going abroad. Many workers suddenly realize that they cannot pay back the money on time and fall into depression, choosing to end their life when the angst becomes too much. But, maybe, this is just one of the reasons and more in-depth probing will reveal other macabre situations.

To look at the suicides from the angle of a crime, in Bangladesh, we often see murders staged as suicides by the killers. There have been cases where bodies were exhumed for a second or third autopsy when family members of the deceased refused to accept the initial verdict of suicide.

How do we know that the worker who took their life was not killed and the murder passed off as suicide?

Or worse still, if a worker, faced with relentless torture plus inhuman demands, commits suicide, then the employer should also be held responsible for driving the worker to such an end. The authorities in Middle Eastern countries have repeatedly said they will look into the matter, though their pledge sounds more like appeasement. 

The fault of Bangladeshi workers

No problem is created by one side only and the Bangladeshi workers must also take some blame for being willing to work too many hours to make as much as possible to pay back the loan incurred back home to fund for the overseas employment. 

Selling land, taking loans at high interest rates are common for most overseas workers who are always under pressure to pay back the money. Shariful Hassan of Brac adds: “The high cost of migration is often associated with deaths; when a worker spends money to go overseas, there is always the anxiety to recover the money spent and s/he remains desperate to earn which lead to working 18 to 20 hours a day and living in cramped conditions. Tempted to earn more, they become illegal and, therefore, cannot take advice of doctors.”

It’s laudable that the government is planning to provide health related advice to workers though the major duty for safeguarding workers’ well-being lies on the law enforcers and relevant departments of the country to which the worker is going to.

If the authorities in the Middle East stonewall the issue of workers’ safety and allow the employers impunity for the mistreatment of workers, deaths and suicides won’t stop. Since there have been too many tales of woe reported in the media, the government has a responsibility to invite authorities of employing nations for candid discussions as to what will and won’t be done for worker safety.