Over the last 12 years, more than 36,000 bodies of deceased migrant workers were brought back to Bangladesh. And the number of deaths is increasing alarmingly in the destination countries, including the six Gulf states. Migration experts say that Bangladesh has not taken sufficient initiatives to investigate those unnatural deaths.
In his keynote presentation at an event recently held in Dhaka, CR Abrar, executive director of Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU), said that mental stress and lack of implementation of occupational safety measures are also contributing factors to the untimely deaths of migrant workers.
The Business Standard spoke to Shariful Islam Hasan, Programme Head of Migration at Brac, to discuss the predicament of migrant workers, their untimely deaths, high cost of migration and workplace safety in the destination countries.
Why do you think our migrant workers are dying abroad?
Look, the number of migrant workers has increased significantly in different countries over the last decade, which may be one of the reasons behind the increasing number of deaths. This is our assumption, but it is hard to say precisely why the number of deaths is increasing.
In most cases, workers who go to a foreign land in the hope of work are not aware of their health issues. They have little idea about the country's weather and food habits they should adopt. They are not prepared enough to deal with these issues when they leave Bangladesh.
Again, many migrant workers go to the destination countries undocumented. As a result, they do not get the proper medical facilities, even if they fall ill. Undocumented workers always live in constant fear of getting arrested.
Another big reason behind their death is the workplace and living conditions of the workers in those countries. Moreover, the migration cost for a worker from Bangladesh is the highest in the world. As a result, they live in [constant] anxiety to recover the cost of migration. Many migrant workers work overtime, stretching even 18 to 20 hours.
Migrant workers spend a lonely life there. Most of them die from brain strokes and heart attacks. There is a connection between mental pressure and loneliness with heart diseases and brain strokes.
The living conditions and food habits also have an impact on their health. Many of them are compelled to work in hostile weather. If one becomes ill, one cannot visit doctors on time.
I think all of these things are contributing to the death rate. If we want to identify the real cause of death, we need investigation.
How do you think the situation can be improved?
Some 61 percent of dead bodies of migrant workers come from Middle Eastern countries; and around 30 percent come from a single country, Saudi Arabia.
What we can do right now is to make migrant workers aware that they need some form of orientation before going overseas to work. They need to be mindful of what kind of lifestyle they need to adopt, what kind of food they should have and how much water they should drink. I think it will help them a lot. If we can do this, I believe we can cut down 10 to 15 percent of the deaths.
Migrant workers do not get sufficient training when they leave Bangladesh. There is no separate health-related orientation in the country for people who go abroad for work. I think the government should take these types of initiatives immediately.
What is the way out of the high cost of migration?
The main reason behind the high cost of migration is visa trading. The recruiting process is dependent on middlemen. If we can make the recruitment process digitised and easy, it will definitely bring down the expense. And to do so, we will have to stop the trading of visas.
[According to the Migrant Resource Centre, visa trading refers to a situation where a migrant is sponsored for a specific work or position. However, upon arrival in the destination country, the migrant worker performs a substantially different job because the sponsor has unofficially "traded" or "sold" the worker's visa to another sponsor, whom the worker now answers to informally. The migrant worker is "released" into the black market to earn a living in exchange for financially compensating the sponsor.
The key distinction between the visa trading and typical irregular migration is that under visa trading, the migrant worker enters the destination country with an appropriate paperwork with the correct visa but then subsequently enters the black market.]
There are many other options to bring down the migration cost. For example, during the pandemic, airfare has increased by four times. We need to think about how we can bring down the ticket prices.
The host countries will have to play a strong role in stopping visa trading. It depends on how they wish to recruit migrants from Bangladesh.
For example, South Africa recruits workers from Bangladesh through the Employment Permit System. The host countries will have to develop such a system to address problems pertaining to the recruitment process. Then it will be possible to monitor the system.
The embassies will have to come forward to increase monitoring of health-related issues. Then some improvement will be visible. But it will not happen overnight. Ultimately, we will have to go for the Employer Pays Model where employers are responsible to bear the full cost of recruitment. If we do this, the migration cost will decrease.
A few days ago, we saw news of the kidnapping of Bangladeshi migrant workers in Iraq. How can we protect them from being kidnapped?
It is not only in Iraq. Migrant workers face some problems in every country. They face torture, they are held hostages and sometimes are kidnapped. The problems vary from country to country. But I believe the host countries will have to take responsibility in the end.
Exploitation of our migrant workers must stop. At the same time, safe migration should be ensured.
How can our embassies protect migrant workers?
First, I believe that if we want to bring down the number of deaths, we will have to investigate the reasons behind their deaths. We have a responsibility to brief the migrant workers before they leave our country.
Our embassy officials will have to play a strong role there to ensure that their working environment is congenial and they have access to nutritious food. They will have to find out how many workers are cramming in crowded rooms.
Embassies can arrange medical camps for these workers regularly. They will have to create awareness about their health issues.
Are our female migrant workers safe in the Middle Eastern countries?
A large number of dead bodies coming to Bangladesh are of female workers. Many female migrants committed suicide. As I have said, we will have to look into the working environment and why they are dying.
What can be done to increase skill development?
If you impose skill development from the top, it will not work. The migrant workers will have to have the urge to improve their skills. In our country, people are ready to spend Tk5 lakh to go abroad, but they do not show interest in spending Tk5,000 to develop skills.
For this reason, we need to look at skills development at the national level. We can help improve their skills and help them learn a foreign language. Migrant workers think that all of their problems will be solved if they can go abroad. But that is not the case. They will have to develop soft skills and hard skills before going to a country.