National consultation on migrant workers’ access to justice was organized by Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP), a non-governmental development organization on October 30, 2019, at Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel in Dhaka. In collaboration with The Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD), the consultation brought together civil society, returnee migrant workers, human rights activists, media and other relevant stakeholders along with government officials. The program started with the introducing speech of Mr. Richard Sloman, Bangladesh Program Officer, CAFOD, while he presented the objectives of the joint project of OKUP and CAFOD on safe migration, mainly as information dissemination, awareness-raising, and skill development.
The key findings of OKUP research titled “Access to justice for Bangladeshi migrant workers: Opportunities and Challenges” were exposed at the consultation. The report was done by interviewing with 110 women and girl migrants who survived abuse and exploitation in the current justice system and received legal, economic and psychosocial aid from OKUP in the last year. In his keynote address, Shakirul Islam, Chairman of OKUP, explored the violation of the rights of the migrant workers. The research data also revealed that 61% of women migrants face physical torture by their employers appointed by the recruiting agents at the destination countries. 86% of these women forced to return without their salaries. Even though they have the right to seek justice, limitations of law make their access to justice intimidating and very difficult. 90% of these people did not receive their job contracts and are little informed about their job conditions and salaries. The updates also showed that sub-agents provided false medical certificates to 58% of these women, and fraudulent training completion certificates to 25% of them, and thus they continue to carry out illegal and unethical migration.
Mr. Anisul Islam Mahmud MP, Chairman, Parliamentary Standing Committee on Ministry of Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment was present in the consultation as the Chief Guest. He said that the Bureau of Manpower, Employment, and Training (BMET) needs to open a separate arbitration wing for resolving migrant workers’ complaints. He also made the remark that remittance from the migrant workers is a key pillar of our country’s economic strength, and therefore, the protection and welfare of this labor force should not be overlooked at any cost.
In Bangladesh, the migration process for working abroad is mostly dependent on the sub-agents. Mentioning this fact, the chief guest, Mr. Anisul Islam Mahmud suggested the regulation and registration of these sub-agents with the recruiting agencies for curbing their unlawful and unethical practices.
Terming migrants’ rights violation a complex, global phenomenon, Chief Guest, Professor Dr. Mizanur Rahman, Former Chairman of National Human Rights Commission, expressed his grudge that Saudi Arab and other destination countries of the Bangladeshi migrant workers have not yet signed the convention on the Protection of Migrant Workers 1998. He added how these countries speak about Muslim brotherhood but never treated our migrants as equal to them. Recalling that the international community is not enough serious about these countries’ demeaning attitudes and the rights violations of our workers, Mr. Rahman urged that it was high time to protect the rights of our own people. However, he opined at the same time that the existing justice system of Bangladesh does not ensure a friendly environment for the poor, it just victimizes them more. The little compensation, as the legal expert added, never considers the psychosocial trauma a survivor goes through. He recommends that for responding to migrant workers’ complaints, mediation would be a better alternative to the existing legally binding procedures of arbitration.
Special Guest of the consultation, Mr. Shafiqul Islam, Joint Secretary of Wage Earners’ Welfare Board (WEWB), shed light on the lack of legal provisions in destination countries which was also responsible for the mistreatment of Bangladeshi migrant workers. Stressing on the importance of building human capital, Mr. Nazibul Islam, Additional Secretary of the Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment, opined that eliminating the risks of migration would be possible through a skilled workforce. He called for opening up the Technical Training Centre (TTC) at every district. “For empowering the job-seekers and aspirant migrant workers, the skills of teachers in technical curriculums should also be upgraded” he added.
Mr. Atiqur Rahman, Director of Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) held forth how he was acting as a legal advisor during the arbitration between migrant survivors and recruiting agencies at the BMET. “The situation of BMET is now much better and we are really trying our best for improving the justice system of migrant workers”, he said. Followed by his discussion, Additional Director of BMET, Mr. Ruhul Amin also stressed his institution’s role in responding to the complaints raised by the migrant workers. While he urged the stakeholders to be more responsible for redressing and responding to migrants’ rights violations, he added that the government should continue to export this manpower as demanded by Saudi Arabia and other countries of the Middle East for neutralizing their pressure on the national job market.
Asif Munier, an independent consultant, assessed the joint project of OKUP and CAFOD on the empowerment of people at the community level. He said that OKUP by giving support from the backseat, do not just share information about migration but also provide necessary sustenance for mobilizing a large number of people for their preparedness to go abroad, or even finding them alternative economic opportunities for livelihood. Furthermore, Mr. Munier shed light on OKUP’s role in institutionalizing Migrant Forums for the protection of these workers’ rights and their families. Mentioning the current trend of forced migration and human trafficking, he suggested to activate and reactivate counter-trafficking mechanisms at the local level. In the absence of legal enforcement to combat trafficking, Mr. Munier also recommended a comprehensive mechanism taken at the global, national and local levels.
The event also raised several other issues that shied away migrant workers from access to justice. As the program was made open for a panel discussion, participants highlighted the problems of high court fees, power imbalances and migrant workers’ little capacity to negotiate at the arbitration cell, restrictions and legal boundaries for case filing, behavior problems of the government officials, etc. However, to improve the justice system for migrant workers, OkUP, along with other stakeholders, believed that there should be a decentralization of the arbitration and all other legal procedures at the local level. And since the BMET is overburden management, it is high time to open a separate arbitration cell of this department.