Migrant workers: narratives of destinations, denial and class

NewAge, September 8, 2008

There is very little that the government doesn’t know about how the sector is run and there is very little that the powers that be have done in the past for the poor workers because they are the ones who are running the show. To reform the sector would mean going against the best interest of the ruling class, writes Afsan Chowdhury

Photo: NewAge

NOTHING describes better the nature of our state than the fact that while we crow over the high dollar reserve generated by our guest workers, we obstinately refuse to do anything serious about the conditions of the people working in great difficulties and pain while sending money home.

It is strange that the three economic sectors that keep Bangladesh afloat have seen high levels of economic distress as far as the workers are concerned. The narrative of the garments sector is well known and for the last three decades it has made many rich and turned the workers into a drill machine working for unacceptable wages and benefits. The obligation to innovate lies largely with the owners who seem to have singularly failed to take the sector forward beyond sweatshop status and investment in workers is negligent because they are many and replaceable.

The frozen food industry has one of the worst records of environmental hazard and its role in accentuating disasters including destruction of sweet-water sources have been documented extensively. More significantly, the sector has formalised the idea that it is OK to destroy nature if it brings money.

The largest of course in Bangladesh is the remittance economy sector and this year in particular, it has exposed both the contribution of the workers and the sorry treatment they get from their employers abroad. The lack of will and ability of the authorities to act in their favour displays how disposable the workers have become. This inertia of the authorities is probably a statement of the position of the authorities. It is reaching a point where one must start conceiving plans for protection against government (in)actions and proximity to those who are responsible for their denial of rights.

Narratives of destinations, denial and class

Some of the facts about migrant workers are well known and easily forgotten. In the esteemed narrative of 1971, the migrant worker is now imagined as an outsider finding space through its contributions to the independence effort though without their support the international movement for Bangladesh would never have taken off. Historically, those who went away are thought of having done so after failing to reach their socio-economic goal. The stigma of migration is very strong in our society, especially when it comes to guest working in the Middle East, Malaysia and similar places.
   Migration is driven by economic ability, social connection and family condition. Hence, the broad use of the term may hide the social contradictions within.

Almost everyone migrates in one form or the other in the interest of livelihood and other concerns. Possibly, the largest number of migrants crosses the next door border to India and become part of that country’s bottom end of the underground economy. They generally join the domestic aide, rag picking and also prostitution among the several desperate professions they can enter. Those who go to India come from the poorest class and are brothers of the migrants from many devastated parts of Bangladesh who flock to Dhaka in a bid to survive. As this migration is the least costly, and the least economically lucrative, India attracts the poorest. As they don’t compete in the Indian job market, they are left alone except in the troubled North East and Mumbai because they are thought to constitute a political disturbance or a threat. India has been actively fencing and patrolling the borders to shut this down though this cohort has still managed to go. One goes to India when there is no other place to go.

The second destination of migrants is the Middle East and Malaysia. Here the social identity of the people choosing to go there splits into various classes, make this narrative more complex. The Middle East attracts both kinds of people, from the workers to the engineers, doctors and other professionals. The experiences vary widely.

The workers lead a precarious existence, unable to negotiate their entry, their salaries, their security, benefits, etc from their employers and suffer hugely. The fact that most of them may have suffered a great deal at home just to reach here, in many cases cheated out of their family savings, threatening the fragile security of the family in general, points to a curious disconnect between the experiences of the workers and the professionals.

There are hardly any references to the plight of the professionals who go there. It is true they are also hard pressed in several sectors and often face difficulties in migration, remittance and other areas but in the end, they have a much better life and their problems often mirror the issues they might have faced if they were at home.

The situation in the Middle East and Malaysia are horror stories for the less endowed and both zones of guest working are destinations of severe denials of rights and access to normal compensation for work for the poor.

The third destination is the West where the most resourced are moving to and many are also buying their socio-economic identity with money earned at home. This destination is generally shut for the poor class, and the middle and upper class migrants reach there. These places – the US, the UK, Canada, etc – have also become destinations for the second migration of the residential variety for many professionals in the Middle East and elsewhere. Hence their status and character are different from the working class migrants in the Middle East or Malaysia.
   However, since 9/11 many illegal middle and lesser class migrants in the US have started to flock to Canada where anti-Muslim bias is low and social pressure against racial profiling exists. Still, the traffic towards the US remains high and possibly the highest intake amongst the Western countries is still the US.

The conclusion is inescapable that the present extreme and visible crisis is the result not just of incompetence and lethargy of the authorities which extend to all sectors but also expresses the class attitude of the state. There is very little that the government doesn’t know about how the sector is run and there is very little that the powers that be have done in the past for the poor workers because they are the ones who are running the show. To reform the sector would mean going against the best interest of the ruling class.

A contest of will and the need to 
challenge the status quo

Bangladeshis in general suffer from a perplexing and paralytic love of all things which is often translated into their affection for political parties. It is no secret that that a major source of funding for politics comes from the manpower export and garments lobby and it is naïve to think there will be any significant intervention to regulate or regularise the sector as a whole. That literally leaves few options since the government control over the sector is total and between BAIRA, Bangladesh government and the many agents and sub-agents, the chances of a pro-working class set of decisions are remote when it comes to guest working.

The only way out could really mean a new alliance that needs to be set up between the affected and intending migrants with strong political intent that are able to contest the existing status quo. This involves a new strategy where the state’s monopoly in the sector needs to be challenged and the existing regime of manpower agents need to face competition, best if coming from migrants themselves. Is this possible?

Even now, a large number of migrants flow down through family connections and reports suggest that they are the best off. A set of tasks that will enhance the capacity of intending migrants at home before departure and at their place of work abroad is the simple solution. Does seem like a simple solution.

The economic strength of the guest working class is very high but that translates only into remittance data and not really advantage for the workers. Yet the figures are startling.

According to the IMA Foundation, an activists group which has contested the government and the authorities in their recent work states, ‘Contribution of Bangladeshi migrants in sending remittance is double than the dollar earned by readymade garments (RMGs), 5 (five) fold in FDI (foreign direct investment), 7 (seven) fold in overseas development assistance and 8.8 per cent in total GDP.’

No economic sector can claim this kind of strength and no sector experiences this kind of denial either. It would seem that the socio-political perception of the workers is roughly the same people have towards the RMG workers who are seen as human mules of burden and work.

It has reached a point in Bangladesh where the huge number of poor instead of shaming the establishment makes them more vulnerable to exploitation and their loss of economic opportunities mean they are easily replaceable.

It is the face of Bangladesh we think we don’t have.

Resources: The plight of South Asian migrant workers (AlJazeera video)


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