The International Labor Organization, ILO, uses its 2006 Multilateral Framework on Labor Migration (MLF) to bring together unions, employers and governments to discuss ways of protecting the rights of migrants and ensuring that migration accelerates development in labor-sending countries. For example, since many South Asian migrants rely on private recruiters, the MLF calls for issuing standardized and enforceable contracts to migrants as many of them do not fully understand what they sign, eliminating or regulating fees charged by recruiters, and developing standardized systems to license and regulate recruiters.
The 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families entered into force on 1 July 2003. The convention has 30 signatories and 42 parties. Bangladesh signed it on October 7, 1998. A range of articles of this convention promotes and protects migrant workers’ rights such as right to life of migrant workers and their families. Article 10 protects them from torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment. Article 11 (1) and (2) protects them from slavery or servitude and forced or compulsory labor. Article 16 (5) clearly states that migrant workers and members of their families who are arrested shall be informed at the time of arrest as far as possible in a language they understand of the reasons for their arrest and they shall be promptly informed in a language they understand of any charges against them.
Though this convention has all necessary words for protecting each and everything of migrant workers and their families but unfortunately many countries have yet to sign as well as ratify it. The irony is that most of the host countries of Bangladeshi migrant workers such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Iraq, Bahrain, Iran, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore, Maldives, Hong Kong and Brunei have not signed or ratified this convention. International human rights instruments had been found toothless in many instances. How to make these host countries responsible towards migrant workers with respect to this convention is still a big question. This piece of international apparatus is also not that useful unless it is translated into national legislation. And that kind of translation is absent both in Bangladesh as well as host countries. However, these instruments are the last mile stone in the fight against torture, detention, deportation, and inhuman treatment of migrant workers irrespective of borders.
Overwhelming population and lack of resources as well as opportunities have resulted in desperate migration. A group of brokers and recruiting agencies in home as well as host nations have developed vicious nexus of deceptive activities, which eventually victimize innocent migrant workers. These deceptive entities in Malaysia are very active nowadays. They take money from the workers with false promises of visa and work permit. Such workers are not facilitated by the Bangladeshi high commission there, and as a result thousands of illegal migrants are currently forced to hide out in forests, sometime without even food.
Ramadan paid Tk 50,000 for work and visa in Malaysia but after arrival he was taken to a shelter where he spent 3 months of hardship and insufficient food. The brokers took his passport and threatened him with police arrest if he tried to flee. Ramadan finally escaped and found another broker who got him a job as grass-cutter for a pittance of 3,000 ringgit.
According to a Sept 30, 2009, news report in daily Ittefaq , Talat Mahmud Khan, a high official in the labor wing of Bangladeshi high commission in Malaysia had approved 4.25 lack visas and jobs for Bangladeshi migrant workers. The previous caretaker government had formed a special task force on migrant export to investigate irregularities and corruption in this sector. The task force found that out of the 4.5 lakh permits 3 lakh were fraudulent. Such fake recruitment was carried out with the help of out-sourcing companies. Many migrant workers did not find their recruiters after arrival at the Sepang airport and were eventually arrested. These were the lucky ones. There are still hundreds held captive at the various shelters run by Bangladeshi brokers in Malaysia.
Delowar, 33, went to Singapore in hopes of finding a good job but was severely disappointed. The sole bread-earner of a family of five, he first arrived in Singapore on August 26, 2008. Like the other 500 workers living in the dormitory, Delowar is only provided with a 1.5 cm thick wooden plank to sleep on. His voice is amongst the 500 in that dormitory crying out for help, only to find themselves facing a wall every time.
Bangladeshi women are also included in this tale of abused migrants. Zohra Khatun of Jhenidah and Laboni Aktar of Narayanganj returned empty-handed from Malaysia. They had gone to Malaysia in January this year with many dreams. When they reached Kuala Lumpur their dreams turned into a nightmare. The brokers pressurized them into working as prostitutes, but they instead managed to escape after paying an additional Tk 60,000. The same happened to Ranu who went to Lebanon for a better life, but returned with bruises all over her body. She received medical treatment with the help of a human rights organization, but is still too weak to work. Likewise, there are 200 Bangladeshi women forced to work as prostitutes in Pune, India.
A focus group discussion with some of the cheated workers, who attempted to migrate to Malaysia, has revealed frightening stories of struggle and sufferings caused by the unscrupulous nexus of agents at home and abroad.
A total of 119 Bangladeshis went to Malaysia in March 2007. They signed a contract with Golden Arrow Ltd to work in Malaysia as Market Cleaners. Each one paid Tk. 2,20,000 to Golden Arrow Ltd for their visa and got no receipt in return. After arrival in Malaysia, they couldn’t find anybody from the company. So they waited at the airport for 2 days. Finally, a person claiming to be an employee of the company arrived at the airport and told everyone to submit their passports and visas to her, after which she took all of them to an isolated house inside a palm garden on the outskirts of the city and told them to stay there until their job appointment. They were locked in the house with armed guards outside. They were given a meager one meal a day, sometimes not even that. There were times when they had to go hungry for 3 to 4 days at a stretch. On top of that they were regularly beaten by the guards if tried to raise a voice. After about three months one of them died. It was then that the police arrived and took them all in custody. Six days later the Malaysian employer came to the police station, held a meeting with the police officials, and promised the laborers speedy job appointments. They were later taken out of the police station, divided into small groups of 10 to 15 each and transported to separate houses. Again, the torture began and this time they were more helpless because of their small numbers. They were not allowed to go outside the house or talk to anyone. This continued for months. No government official, police, or human rights organization came to their rescue. When their relatives back home couldn’t get in touch with them, they contacted other laborers of their village working in Malaysia and requested them to search for their missing ones. It was by chance that one of them managed to locate a group of the captives and informed their families in Bangladesh. After 10 months, the Malaysian employer finally told the captive laborers that they would be set free only if their relatives send them air tickets to go back to Bangladesh. That’s how many of them could return home with their lives spared. The Bangladesh embassy in Malaysia was all this while a silent spectator. Once the workers came home safely they contacted the recruiting agency, Golden Arrow Ltd. but the agency instead threatened them and also refused to pay any compensation. Through the half-hearted ad slow efforts of the Manpower office some of these workers have received a compensation of Tk. 1,75,000, but this amount is far less than the Tk. 2,20,000 they had paid the recruiting agency. Many have still not been paid even that. And what about justice for all the hardships they had to bear for 10 months in Malaysia. Who will compensate for that?