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Straight Talk: Turning a Blind Eye to Abuse

Daily Star  |  May 12, 2006  |  Share


Straight Talk: Turning a Blind Eye to Abuse

Zafar Sobhan

The plight of Bangladeshi workers overseas, most recently highlighted by the report released last week by the US-based National Labour Committee on the stomachchurning abuse of Bangladeshi garment workers in Jordan, should be a national scandal.

Of course, the fact that Bangladeshis working abroad are abused and exploited is hardly a news-flash, but what made the report such an eye-opener was the human face it put on the suffering.

It is one thing to know in the abstract that our overseas workers are abused with impunity, but it is quite another to read in precise detail how they are cheated, beaten, and terrorized; to read about a young Bangladeshi woman who hanged herself after "allegedly" being raped by one of her managers.

The abuse and exploitation of our overseas workers is a long-standing problem that the government has done absolutely nothing to address.

There are some four million Bangladeshis working outside the country, repatriating over $4 billion dollars a year. In fact, since much remittance of foreign exchange is done though unofficial channels, the actual figure is certainly even higher. These workers are the unsung heroes of our economy and without their input the country would grind to a halt.

The question is: what do we do for them in return?

The shameful answer is that we do virtually nothing for them. The Bangladeshi mission in Jordan has done nothing to ease the plight of the thousands of Bangladeshi workers in the country, and in this it is in good company: no Bangladeshi mission overseas has seen fit to ensure the rights and welfare of expatriate Bangladeshi workers or even thinks of their welfare as any kind of priority.

The ministry of expatriate welfare and overseas employment and the foreign ministry were not even aware of the report until it was brought to their attention by the media, and both ministries are evidently less well-informed and concerned about the welfare of Bangladeshis working abroad than a US-based international labour rights organization.

As always, the reasons behind the government's shameful neglect of four million of its citizens are as predictable as they are unacceptable.

The first and perhaps most poignant reason is that the government has simply never shown much interest in the welfare of its citizenry and so we should not be surprised to find that its treatment of Bangladeshis working overseas is no exception.

The second reason, that follows from the first, is that our overseas labour force is made up, almost by definition, of working class Bangladeshis who come from the lower strata of society, with no power, influence, or connections, and they are thus even more likely to fall between the cracks and have their interests ignored by the government.

The third reason is that the exploitation of the overseas workers starts with the manpower agencies here in Bangladesh who charge extortionate rates to manpower agencies here in Bangladesh who charge extortionate rates to send people abroad and collude with the overseas employers to exploit the workers in every imaginable way.

Thus some of the benefits of this latter-day slave trade are reaped by highly influential constituencies here in Bangladesh and their partners in the corridors of power, and these people are happy to continue to make millions off the misery of their fellow citizens.

The final reason why the plight of our overseas workers has gone unlamented officially is that the government remains anxious to keep up good relations with some of the countries such as Saudi Arabia or Kuwait or Malaysia where the reports of abuse have been the worst.

The prime minister was in Kuwait recently looking for a favourable rate for fuel imports. Did she bring up the issue of the rights and welfare of Bangladeshi migrant workers in Kuwait while she was there? I am guessing not.

After all, we can't have something as insignificant as the rights and welfare of Bangladeshi workers get in the way of cheap fuel and good relations with our Muslim brothers.

This is disgraceful. The Bangladeshis working overseas are citizens of this country and have a right to expect that their government will look out for their interests. There are some four million of them and another quarter million is added to their number every year. It is unconscionable that the government would turn a blind eye to the plight of what amounts to two and a half percent of the population.

If the government is not moved by the humanitarian argument for improving the welfare of our overseas workers, surely it should be more responsive to the cold, hard, practical benefits to the country of protecting them.

After all, these men and women repatriate close to ten percent of GDP back to the economy despite the fact that they are routinely cheated by both manpower agencies and their employers. Ensuring that they are paid a fair wage or even the wage that they are contractually entitled to would massively increase the amount of money remitted back to the country. There is a simple fix: all that is needed, as ever, is the political will. The ministry for expatriate welfare must be empowered and all Bangladeshi missions abroad must make the welfare of Bangladeshi workers priority number one.

Right now, the ministry is among the most useless in the country (which is saying something), and does nothing whatsoever for the millions supposedly under its care, and the efforts of our foreign missions are similarly disgraceful.

This is elementary public policy. It is both the right thing to do morally and in the national interest. Finally, it is a question of national pride. We should be ashamed that we permit our fellow countrymen and women struggling hard to earn an honest wage to be exploited and treated worse than farm animals.

But when has this government ever cared about doing the right thing, acting in the national interest, or protecting our national pride?

Zafar Sobhan is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.

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