MIGRATION: They Seek Greener Pastures but End Up in Hell

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By Kalinga Seneviratne in Singapore*

"Most migrant workers are indebted up to seven to ten months of salary. So for two years contract most workers start earning only in second year of their contract," laments Bridget Tan, President of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), a Singaporean non-governmental organization (NGO), which has been sheltering and assisting hundreds of domestic workers over the years, who have been abused by employers or cheated by recruitment agents.

Right across Asia, from the Arab Gulf Sates, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Jordan to India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines, a chain of recruitment agencies both in sending and receiving countries are making a lot of money, exploiting the poverty of people, and their desire to make a better living. Both the receiving countries -- which get cheap labour, and the sending countries that receive their remittances -- are ignoring perhaps the greatest violation of human rights in the modern times.

For countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh remittances from migrant workers, mainly unskilled men and women working as labourers and domestic helpers, has become their biggest foreign exchange revenues, helping to keep the country's economy afloat. In 2009, remittances have contributed US$ 3.3 billion adding to 8 to 9 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Sri Lanka. In the first eight months of this year, Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) have sent US$13.7 billion in remittances back home, while in Bangladesh remittances are expected to reach US$ 10 billion this year and in Indonesia over US$ 3 billion.


For governments struggling to balance their current account deficits these foreign exchange earnings are most welcome, but the question which needs to be asked is: Are the governments looking after their bread-winners? All indications point to the contrary.

As Shifa Hafiz, of the Bangladeshi NGO BRAC observes: "If these people remain in Bangladesh they would have been unemployed and the government has to take the responsibility for them for their feeding, livelihood and all the other things. But as they are migrating to other countries they are taking their own responsibility and with this migration, neither governments nor the civil society are supporting them. It is mostly through the recruiting agencies they are migrating (these) recruiting agencies are exploiting them."

"I can see that today the migrant workers are modern day slaves. The reason is migration today is not like how my parents, also migrant labour, experienced it. They were not bonded by a work permit," argues well-known Malaysian migrant rights activist Irene Fernandez, who was born in the country in 1946 to parents who were brought to Malaysia by the British from India to work in the rubber plantations. She has been tirelessly campaigning for the rights of migrant workers in her country for almost two decades now, and in 2005 she received the Right Livelihood Award for community services.

"Currently you are bonded to same employer through your work permit. If you want to leave the employer you have to return to your country and come back with a new work permit. Now this means through the work permit the migrant worker is bonded to a two-year, three-year, or five-year contract," she explains. "No matter how abusive the employers are, even if wages are not paid, it is impossible for migrant worker to leave the employer. If he leaves he becomes undocumented. So the situation becomes a bonded labour situation."


One of the biggest problems in this international flow of migrant labour is to control the private recruitment agencies, which treat the foreign workers as commodities rather than human beings. For example, Singapore law says that a foreign worker cannot be charged more than 10 percent of a month’s salary plus another 50 Singapore dollars (about US$ 40) as a placement fee, but many charge far above that as Tan has pointed out and get away with impunity by working closely with their partner agency in the source countries.

Since most of the foreign workers come to Singapore to earn and send money back home to help out their families, Tan asks "what happens to the families when the period they don’t have earnings?" She points out that they start to borrow, and if they are deported for whatever reason they go back home not only penniless, but very much in debt. "This exploitation is so rampant but authorities close their yes to this because agencies say it is the cost of doing business," she adds.

Many of the migrant workers think that they have to pay these hefty unregulated fees to work overseas. "First time I came here I paid around 1600 dollars now second time I pay 2100 dollars it is seven months deduction which is so high for us, it is really expensive to work here in Singapore," complains Joy, a Filipina, who has worked in Singapore for 6 years. "If we have to work in Singapore we have no choice but pay that much, but, the advantage we get is, we don’t pay from our pocket, they deduct once we get here."

In both the Philippines and Singapore such payments to recruitment agents are illegal, yet it is a widespread practice. It's not only women but male workers, who come to work from Bangladesh and Indonesia, have to pay similar fees to recruitment agents.

Tan believes that it is difficult for law enforcement officials to charge agents in Singapore because most of the transactions are done in the source country, and there are no papers, which the worker has signed.
"Employment agencies in sending countries like Indonesia saddle the worker from the very point of go the worker has already 2000 Singapore dollar debt to pay and employment agencies here will buy this worker from the Indonesian agency at about 2000 dollars a hit when they come here they will top it up with another 600 dollars so 2600 for getting them an employer in Singapore. Most of these men and women are more than willing to pay this because they are enticed into thinking that working overseas you can earn very much more and they don't calculate this cost of placement" she points out.


Exploitation of migrant workers is much worse in the West Asian (Middle Eastern) countries, where some women have returned in coffins or as the case with the Sri Lankan woman recently, she returned from Saudi Arabia with some 27 nails in her body after being tortured by her employer.

This is what another Sri Lankan mother who went to Saudi Arabia told about her experience there: "I faced troubles from the very beginning. The house lady started beating me. She did not give me food. Later, I made a complaint to the Police but the police once again committed me to the same house. After that the house lady again started beating me. She did not give me food to eat for two months. One day when I was washing clothes the house lady called me upstairs. When I appeared in front of her she asked me to look down from the upstairs and when I did so she pushed me down. Thereafter, I was unconscious and knew nothing. I woke up at the hospital. My legs were broken. I had to stay in the hospital for three months. Then only I was sent to Sri Lanka. I was cured completely."

As Nurul Hasanah, a 32 year old female worker from Indonesia recalls: "During my work in Saudi Arabia, I really felt like a servant. I was not paid. I was often whipped, beaten and drenched with hot water. In addition I was not allowed to leave the house and never communicated with the family."

Recently after the case of an Indonesian maid tortured and disfigured by her Saudi Arabian employer came to light, Indonesian Muslim organisations mounted demonstrations outside the Saudi embassy in Jakarta. Yet, Governments in Colombo and Jakarta have played down these issues, more concerned with protecting the remittances they send home rather than their human rights.

It is not only women who suffer torture and exploitation in the Middle East. This is the story of a Bangladeshi man who went to Saudi Arabia to work, after paying an agent over US$ 1300 to find him a job there.
"I worked there as a caretaker of sheep but my boss didn’t give me any money; they didn't even give me proper food. My boss came once in a while and he brought chicken for us. But when I demanded my salary he became very angry and beat me up. Eleven months long I didn’t get any salary," he recalled.

Since he was not paid he left the job and went first to work in Mecca, where a Bangladeshi gave him a job and paid him 49,000 Taka (US$ 700) after two months. "I requested one of my co-workers to help me to send the money to my family. He took all the money and called the police. Then the police arrested me and put me in jail. The police destroyed all of my documents and took the little amount of money I had," he explained. "I wasn’t able to get any help from anyone. I was one month in the jail and then send back to my country."

Before he went to Saudi Arabia he had a farm in Bangladesh with almost 900 ducks. He had sold the farm and also some of his land to go to Saudi Arabia. "Now I work as a day labourer and my wife works in a garments factory," he said.


Bangladesh government is well aware that workers from the country are being exploited like this but argues that they cannot stop people from going abroad. As Hazrat Ali, Assistant Secretary of the Labour Ministry explains, "we cannot stop it because the people of our country always think that if they can go abroad they will get something like a golden dear".

But, shouldn't the government take responsibility to educate the people? Even change their mindsets? Shifa Hafiz of BRAC argues that labour migration in Bangladesh should be seen as a human rights issue.
"Most often when the labour migrants enter the aircraft they are becoming undocumented. The documents are mostly kept by the recruiting agency, particularly in case of female migrants, they are taking the female migrants outside of the countries and once they are outside, these female migrants have no address, no connection with the outside world even with their own family. So migration is very much a violation of human rights in this country," she observes.

"Nobody is taking the responsibility for the poor migrants who are earning currency for the country and totally sacrificing their life for the livelihood for their families".

*This article -- written to mark the UN Migrants Day on December 18 -- is based on a series of radio features produced by the Singapore based Asian Media Information and Communication Centre under the theme "Human Beings Not Commodities". - IDN-InDepthNews








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