The Death of Migrant Workers

Rubayat Ahsan

Rubayat Ahsan

Despite some positive steps, there are accusations against government accountability towards migrant workers. Migrant workers commonly accuse Bangladeshi missions in host countries of indifference. Harassment, harsh behavior of embassy officials and ignorance have developed a sense of hopelessness, helplessness, and frustration among migrant laborers. To add salt to injury, 2,237 dead bodies of migrant workers returned home during the last two years. Then there are those increasing number of Bangladeshi workers who are losing jobs and returning home. Fraudulent activities of recruitment agencies are apparent and the labor exporting sector is filled with corruption and has been accused of indiscipline as well as lack of coordination. According to official data, 8,107 Bangladeshi wage earners died in different countries between January 2004 and May 2009. The coffins that arrive at the airport don’t just carry the dead bodies of unknown workers, they also carry the insignia of the state that can afford to forget its poor and powerless citizens.

According to International Migrants Alliance Research Foundation, 834 expatriates, including 32 women workers died in different countries in the first four months of 2009. Saudi Arabia was where Bangladeshi expatriates expired the most: 254 workers. 157 expatriates died in Malaysia, 100 in Dubai, 55 in Kuwait, 34 in Oman, 24 in Abu Dhabi and 21 in Qatar. Cardiac failure is cited as the most common causes of death, which is quite surprising given the young ages of the victims, usually ranging from 30 to 45 years.

According to cardiologists, acute tension caused by uncertainties of income and unhealthy food habits may lead to deaths by heart attacks, while labor rights activists are emphatic that mental tension caused by low income, debts, and lack of medical care abroad lead to such deaths.

On the 1st of July, 2009, the dead bodies of Shahed Ali and Abdul Khalek arrived in Bangladesh from Saudi Arabia. Family members of Shahed Ali say he had job trouble which led to anxiety and insecurity. Motiar Rahman returned dead on July 8. He had 2 sons and 1 daughter. He had gone to Saudi Arabia nine years ago to earn money, and there he had to work in harsh weather conditions without proper protection which eventually led to sickness. The Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) paid no compensation.

Bishu returned dead from America and Shelim from Saudi Arabia. Abdur Rashid had a son and daughter in Dhatalpur village, Sathia, Pabna. He worked in Saudi Arabia for around 17 months. He died in an accident and his body was kept in a cold storage for over a year. BMET usually pays Tk. 20,000 for the transportation of a body and Tk. 2,00,000 as compensation. Rashid’s family filed a complaint with the BMET, but Rashid’s recruiting agency and employer pursued BMET to withdraw that complaint or else it would not deliver Rashid’s dead body. As a result, the helpless family withdrew the complaint, and claimed back his body from the Saudi cold storage. The rent of cold storage for 11 month was Tk. 4 lac., which was then adjusted from his compensation and insurance money.

Such cases involving migrant workers have increased alarmingly during the last couple of years, yet there has been no proper investigation into these deaths. Poor people sell whatever meager assets they have or take loans from relatives to migrate abroad for a better life, not knowing that the hope of a better life often turns out to be a mirage, especially in cases where they poor workers have been cheated by agencies.

A study of ICDDR,B in association with International Organization for Migration (IOM) revealed that only 14 percent of male Bangladeshi migrant workers get medical assistance from their employers, although 70 percent of them have health problems. A majority of the migrants are between 28 and 47 years of age and almost half of them suffer from a variety of mental health problems, while about 60 percent experience some kind of workplace injury.

The government should immediately convene a national commission to investigate the 8,107 deaths that occurred in the past five years, while negotiating with the host countries for better healthcare coverage and protection of rights.

This will not only help bring closure to those who have died but will greatly benefit those workers who are still living abroad. Joynal Abedin of Mirpur, Syed Ahmed of Mohammadpur, Asgar Ali of Savar, Sarwar of Manikgonj, Abul Hossain of Nobabgonj, and Shahjahan of Gajipur are some of the migrant workers who returned dead from abroad. There are hundreds of others like them who may be alive now but are surely running out of time.


358 Responses to “The Death of Migrant Workers”

  1. ahmed ziauddin

    It’s an well written piece, but the key solution proposed, to investigate deaths of over 8000 migrants are so unreal and absurd that it seems to me that the author’s main aim was to duck the problem. Calling to investigate deaths of such high numbers of victims sounds and feels good, but I am pretty sure he knows very well that this is a statement for statement’s sake, and would not make any difference either to the situation that produce such casualties, or to prevent future fatalities.

    Beside the Government of Bangladesh, and the host country, I feel, one group should bear significant responsibility for this horrible state of affair to persist, would be expatriates living in the West, especially those in position to influence.

    Ministers, political leaders, policymakers come and go, and expatriates fight to rub shoulders with them, and even often engage in serious physical fighting, but status of migrants workers are never in their mind. Such expats have set up scores of organizations, and invested heavily, mostly though to secure a place in haven, but virtually none on migrant workers to Europe, Middle East or South East Asia, or for that matter, elsewhere. This inaction of Bangladeshi expats in West, have allowed the situation to degenerate. It was their duty to think about their fellows.

    As such, the author could, and should have focused on importance of organizing the migrants, to raise profile of migrants in every discourse, consulting migrants on policies and decisions, and more importantly, networking with human rights, development, and other organizations in these countries, so that the Governments in these countries realize that Bangladeshis elsewhere are following how they treat their fellow citizens in respective countries. I don’t know whether there was ever a simple letter sent to Saudi or Malaysian missions by expat groups expressing concerns on how Bangladeshis have been treated there, and even try to highlight such plights in other form. There are numerous ways expats can contribute, if they really care about their fellow brothers and sisters.

    However, the author deserve sincere thanks for raising this issue, but seems not enough when the situation is so critical, compounded by global economic crisis. He should have also concretized how to reverse, and improve existing state, and pointed out responsibilities of other expats, governments, and those others, who should play their parts.

  2. Rubayat Ahsan

    thanks for the comment. I understand well the desperation caused by decades of unjust system, which deliberately deprived citizens one way or the other, thriving for justice! this is a research paper not just a one page article. The document has around 16 pages along with detail analysis of both death and return cases concluding with a set of recommendations. I think, e-bangladesh is coming up with the rest of the research piece by piece sooner. I hope, the rest of the research could convince of what you think lacking this moment.

    “If investigation for knowing exact reasons behind death cases of such a big number of migrants appears ‘utopia’; I would say, we are deprived of our right ‘right to information’ as well as ‘right to life’ for so long that we have lost our dignity and are scared to think like that way.”

    “Imprisonment of a stupid American in N. Korea drives Jimmy Carter with a jet charter but questioning death of Bangladeshi migrants in S. Arabia or Malaysia is just utopia”. Give it a second thought!

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