Who is accountable for the abuse migrant workers go through?
It was 3am at night when Asma (pseudonym) (24) stepped out of the Shahjalal International Airport with a baby boy, aged two months and 14 days, on a flight that came straight from Dubai in April of 2021. Her incognizant eyes said, this is not how she wanted to return home after going through such a rough patch.
In 2019, Asma went to Dubai for the second time on a parlour worker visa. The undocumented agent assigned by the licensed agency took Rs2.5 lakh from her at the time for her travel expenses but did not provide any receipt. She wanted to go for a domestic worker’s visa, but the agent told her to go for a better job at a beauty parlour where she could earn better.
Without any training or job contract, she received the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) clearance. However, the agent signed the contract with her just before boarding the plane on the day of her departure. Asma did not get a chance to find out what was written in the agreement. And that’s how she landed in Dubai, with a dream to make her life better.
What comes as everyday news is that Bangladeshi migrant workers are victims of fraudulence at the hands of undocumented agents. But what is rarely in the news is that they are also tortured physically and mentally.
Asma went to Saudi Arabia for the first time with a domestic worker’s visa in 2016, at no cost. After working in Saudi Arabia for two years, she returned to the country when her contract expired. While in Saudi Arabia, she paid off her father’s debts. She had no more money to save.
Five or six months after coming to the country, she decided to go abroad again after seeing the economic hardship her family faced. She therefore went to Dubai, and due to the fraudulent agent and the recruiting agency, she was forced to work as a sex worker. As a result, she became pregnant and eventually gave birth to a child. She was sold five times, and each time the agents were other Bangladeshi migrant workers who worked as pimps.
“This human trafficking racket is vicious. Wearing a disguise of spa or parlour business, many people from Bangladesh and Dubai invest in the prostitution business. In the name of migrating, they traffic women like us who are helpless. They take advantage of our poor situation and naivety. The father of my child is a Bangladeshi man who works as a pimp in Dubai; he came back to Bangladesh amid the pandemic to get married. When I informed him about my situation, he cut off all communication with me,” says Asma.
Under the project, “Recovery and Reintegration Support for Bangladeshi Returnee Migrant Workers,” a grassroot migrant workers’ organization, Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP), has received 72 migrant workers coming from the Middle East from January 2021 to June 2021.
Among 72 cases, 65 were severely tortured -- either mentally or physically, if not both. They were victims of forced slavery, rape, physical abuse, torture, starvation, deprivation of sleep, and many more which caused them mental illness, depression, and severe anxiety.
From Cumilla, Anis (pseudonym), a father of two, started riding rickshaws to earn for his family. His income was very poor and he lived with his father-in-law’s family, who were abusive towards him.
The undocumented agent from the neighbourhood cashed in on his misery and demanded one lakh and 80 thousand taka from him for the cost of the visa. He borrowed the whole amount and gave it to the agent. According to Anis, he was given a visa for agricultural work. The agent promised he would get paid Tk18,000 a month.
Before leaving, Anis was given three days training. He was also given a medical test. No written contract was given to him, though. He could not know if he signed any job contract. He was not told if there were any benefits other than the salary. Therefore, he went to Oman in October 2019.
But Anis’s job was to take care of the camels -- from cleaning the bathing place to feeding the camels. To our utter surprise, he actually worked as a camel jockey. There were a few Pakistani workers on that farm. They used to do the same. The Pakistanis used to bully Anis.
To take care of the camels Anis had to live in a palm leaf tent at the farm. He could not sleep in the heat of the night. So he used to soak the blanket before sleeping. The camels had to be kept awake all night and bathed at night.
The employer used to give Anis the same food as the camel -- raw gram and pulses. The employer used to lift Anis to the back of camels and make him run on them. Several times, he was hit by the camel while running. His knees and chest were badly injured. But the employer used to give him painkillers and deduct his salary for the medical purpose.
Anis worked there for another three months out of fear. After a total of 18 months, Anis fled, leaving all his necessary papers and documents. As a result, he became unregistered. Anis returned home in March 2021.
Sections 3, 6, 11, and 13 of the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act 2021 may result in appropriate legal action against recruiting agencies and undocumented agents for forced slavery, sexual harassment, selling, physical torture, and appealing to migrant workers abroad with fabricated words.
This article can be content without mentioning that Anis and Asma, like others, are victims of the jeopardized legal system. Both of them had BMET clearance to leave the country. Who is accountable for this then? Through a legal procedure, they became victims and had their rights violated.
Shakirul Islam is a researcher, migrant activist, and founding chair of OKUP, a grassroots migrants’ organization.