Bangladeshi Workers Organize to Protect Their Most Valuable Export: Themselves

In Bangladesh, a densely populated country of 157 million, export of migrant workers has become a staple of the economy. Lacking viable economic opportunities at home, laborers often look abroad for a source of income. Facilitating such migration has become a business in itself, with agencies charging exorbitant fees. These middlemen, or “Dalals,” have come under intense scrutiny for failing to guarantee fair working conditions for their clients. Once workers arrive in the foreign country, they can face abuse and curtailed freedoms, and Tiffany Williams relays some of their stories or Foreign Policy in Focus. NGOs and unions try to combat the abuse with training and informing workers of their rights, while also teaching workers, particularly females, how to avoid abuse from employers. Economic superpowers should make fair treatment of laborers a precursor to bilateral agreements. Williams notes, “On the global level, a commitment to banning recruitment fees charged to workers and guaranteed inclusion of all workers, including migrants, in fundamental labor rights protection is a starting point to make a dent in this kind of exploitation.” – YaleGlobal

Bangladeshi Workers Organize to Protect Their Most Valuable Export: Themselves

Migrant domestic workers from Bangladesh enjoy little protection from their government; big economies should extend protections to all, including migrants
Tiffany Williams
Wednesday, October 15, 2014

“Mariah” is a small woman with an unexpectedly intense stare. All of us in the hotel conference room crane our necks to see her as she rises to address the table of advocates and NGO representatives gathered for a meeting on safe migration.

She declares her story: she has just returned from Jordan, where she had been working as a domestic worker. To get there, she had sold her land – she needed every penny she could scrounge.

When she arrived in Jordan, Mariah soon discovered that she would be forced to work in “five different houses, for five different wives.” She slept only three hours a night and was beaten when she finally worked up the courage to ask for her salary. Eventually her desperate husband was able to reach a local NGO and start the process for her rescue.

While Mariah is free, she has nothing to show for her work, and the NGO interpreter next to me pointedly notes she is lucky that her husband accepted her back, implying sexual abuse at the hands of the employer family.

I am here as part of a delegation of labor rights advocates organized through the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center to exchange ideas around human trafficking, migration, and union organizing in Bangladesh. In the evolving global economy, migrants facing virtual indentured servitude abroad – and coming home to debt and social isolation – feels like the new normal.

Next to Mariah at the table is “Akhtar,” who trembles as he tells the group that his wife has been missing for five months. Tears fill his eyes as he shares his futile efforts to go through the recruiting agency that sent her overseas. He spreads out papers: contracts, identity documents, and correspondence, creased and discolored – like he has been carrying them around in the hopes of meeting someone who can intervene.

I watch from the other side of the room as he points and explains each paper to the two government officials who had spoken earlier – the same government officials whose pitiless advice following Mariah’s story had been, “people should know the name of the agency they are giving money to, and memorize the phone number of the embassy.” I feel a flicker of hope as they study the documents while we watch, but it’s hard to tell what the outcome here will be. Several days after this meeting I learned that the even the Bangladeshi embassies in countries where migrant Bangladeshis work are not able to properly respond to workers in crisis.

In Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries on the planet, more than 157 million people live on about 57,000 square miles of land. That’s a population greater than Russia’s living in a country smaller than the state of Illinois. We heard over and over again that Bangladesh’s prime economic resource is its abundance of people – and indeed, alongside agriculture and garment manufacturing, “labor exporting” is a pillar of the economy. In 2013, more than $13 billion was sent home from Bangladeshi migrants working overseas.

The national government officials we met with seemed at once detached from the suffering of migrant workers yet proud of the quality of their “exports.” On the local level, where officials and NGOs seem to work collaboratively to educate Bangladeshis about safe migration, we saw a more complicated picture. Labor migration is a rare viable option to support a family in a poor country like Bangladesh, but these small local partnerships are not reaching enough of the population. Because of these gaps, potential migrants might still take risks in desperation, like working with dalals (middlemen) who cheat them with few consequences. 

But the dalals are not the only problem. The Bangladeshi government has yet to effectively regulate even the “registered” recruiting agencies, which charge enormous and erratic fees. And even as they are quick to point to unscrupulous middlemen as rogue actors, these agencies often contract dalals to find them potential migrants. Bangladeshi recruiters told us that they have to bid for the contracts from the receiving countries, which hold all of the bargaining power, and the costs are passed on to the migrant. Migrants sell property and borrow huge sums in order to pay the fees to migrate – only to have no guarantee that they will actually be paid fairly, if at all, when they arrive. 

Advocates in Bangladesh are pushing for lower, fixed fees based on destination country, but acknowledge that the best outcome for migrant workers would be a “zero-fee” system implemented on a global level.

In the Unites States, where migrant and domestic workers are excluded from many of the federal protections extended to other workers, labor rights activists are also pushing for such a system.

At the Technical Training Center (TTC) in Mirpur, one of 42 centers in the country that teach more than 30 trades, we tiptoe into ongoing classes for domestic workers. In Bangladesh, outgoing domestic workers are required to have 21 days of training before they depart. Most of that time is spent learning practical skills like using household appliances. Through an innovative partnership with the Bangladeshi Migrant Women Workers Association (BOMSA) – a group founded by returned female migrants – domestic workers also get three days of “know your rights” training.

The first room we enter is hot, the lights are off, and two ceiling fans whirr above us, working diligently to cool the room. Twenty-five women sit in neat rows on mats on the floor. Two desks are situated at the front of the room, though they are not being used by the two teachers – organizers from BOMSA, who are pacing energetically as they question the students about what they’ve learned so far. “Where are you going?” they ask the students for our benefit. Ten are going to Dubai, six to Lebanon, five to Jordan, and two each to Qatar and Oman.

The teachers review some tips for self-preservation, encouraging the women to surreptitiously carry a phone number for BOMSA and to record their passport numbers. Some women will hide the numbers on an Arabic prayer card, while others will sew them into the hem of their clothing. It’s hard to fathom that this level of concealment would be necessary for someone going on a government-sponsored work visa, but one returning worker told me that it’s not uncommon for employers in the Gulf to require the newly arrived domestic worker to immediately shower, and then search and confiscate all her documents while she bathes.

Finding creative ways to hide these lifelines is just one part of the “technical training” offered by the TTCs. Other advice included opening two bank accounts (one for yourself and one that your family at home can access) and learning some “shaming” words and gestures in Arabic to thwart aggressive husbands who may try to cross boundaries. Our interpreter and Solidarity Center staffer, Liya, works hard to keep up with the energetic, almost shouting, teachers who lead the students in repetitions of these phrases.

Moving into the next room, a much bigger crowd of women have already taken their seats on the mats. The room is a rainbow of brightly colored cotton and silk set against a spartan model kitchen and living room. Our BOMSA teacher squeezes past the crowd, gets to the podium, and asks the students to recite the rights of migrants. They hold one finger up: “I have the right to a job.” They hold a second finger up: “I have the right to be paid.” A third finger, “I have the right to be free from harassment.” Fourth: “I have the right to contact my family.” All five fingers go up: “I have the right to safely return to my family.”

At this point, I expected their fingers to form into a fist, a sign of power. But instead, they wiggled their fingers and used the imagery of a star. A star: an acknowledgement that these women are driving the economy, that they’re stars and heroes for taking this risk of migration in order to help themselves, their families, and their country. 

Paradoxically, I learned later that the reason the Dhaka TTC was so crowded compared to other regional centers was because many women wanted to take their training secretly, or at least privately, in a different city far from their villages because they were ashamed of being migrant domestic workers. As important as they are to the economy, not just in Bangladesh but globally too, domestic workers are still facing marginalization and a lack of respect for their contributions.

Back in the BOMSA office for a lunch break of rice and vegetables, I immediately spot a poster proclaiming: “DOMESTIC WORKERS ARE WORKERS!” and urging support for International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189.

The convention, passed in 2011 and since ratified by 14 countries and counting, was historic: it was the first convention to specifically address the widespread labor exploitation of domestic workers – including migrants as well as natives. Domestic workers, including members of an AFL-CIO delegation from the United States, were present and active in the discussions, reports, and voting that led up to Convention 189′s passage. In the time leading up to the convention, domestic worker organizing groups from across the globe formed into the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF). The IDWF has the potential to restore power and pride in domestic work and to amplify community organizing as a tool in places like Bangladesh.

While Bangladesh has not signed on to Convention 189, there is an IDWF-affiliated national domestic workers association working to push for ratification. And the Solidarity Center, BOMSA, and other local organizations are working overtime to educate potential migrants about safe migration and labor rights. Our delegation observed everything from courtyard meetings of 15 people to an event in an open-air market with more than 100 people. The groups are filling a critical information and services gap, yet they are struggling to keep their doors open.

While our group was there, we met with workers from many sectors – garment manufacturing, construction, domestic work, technology – who all shared similar challenges related to poverty, fraud, debt, discrimination, and abuse – whether at the hands of the factory owner, the dalal, the recruitment agency, or the household employer.

***

It has been four months since I returned to DC from Bangladesh, but I can see the faces of the women I met just as clearly as ever.

As a social worker turned organizer on the issues facing domestic workers here in the United States, I’ve noticed that my work hasn’t changed as much as I thought it would. Cultivating identity, power, and self-determination are steps not only to healing, but also to justice in the workplace.

The incredible, growing union movement in the Bangladeshi garment sector that sprung up after the horrific tragedy at Rana Plaza is one example of what can be achieved when anger and devastation are channeled into organizing. That movement is being led by an army of young women organizers. There is so much potential to create change, but a labyrinthine global system of recruiters, subcontractors, and employers is complicating the pathway to decent work.

Beyond organizing and services on the ground in Bangladesh, government action is sorely needed. The United States has a supportive role to play here: from including stronger labor rights as a condition of trade and development assistance to supporting the government of Bangladesh as it negotiates agreements with destination countries to level the playing field for Bangladeshi workers, who remain among the most vulnerable in Asia.

On the global level, a commitment to banning recruitment fees charged to workers and guaranteed inclusion of all workers, including migrants, in fundamental labor rights protection is a starting point to make a dent in this kind of exploitation.

The United States can set an example by expanding federal-level protections for domestic workers who were cut out of the New Deal , and by finally passing legislation that would ensure transparency and monitoring of foreign labor recruiters who bring workers to the United States. Like in Bangladesh, domestic workers on temporary visas in the United States face exceptional risk. These workers include women working for diplomats and international officials at the UN and World Bank, but also young people who come on J-1 visas as au pairs to provide essential domestic work to American families yet are virtually invisible in the eyes of the U.S. government.

There’s an inkling of change on the way, but making it real will require a global culture shift beyond legislation. Last year’s Senate immigration bill included strong provisions on transparency and monitoring for workers on temporary visas. But the au pair recruitment and placement agencies are aggressively lobbying lawmakers to remove au pairs from the protections should a new bill be introduced this year. As other sectors of organized domestic work gain bills of rights and wage increases through worker organizing, we’ve witnessed an urgency to keep this invisible sector of domestic work underpaid, isolated, and poorly regulated so it can remain a source of cheap childcare, and increasingly, eldercare.

From Bangladesh to Qatar to the United States, legislation protecting migrant domestic workers is sorely needed. But in the lack of legislative action, education and organizing within migrant domestic worker communities – and the public – appears to be the best hope to put the brakes on this downward spiral.

Supporters of Islamist extremist movements took to social media streams on Tuesday to slam U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria against the militant group calling itself the Islamic State [IS].

And as a new front in the Syrian civil war has opened, analysts say militant fighters could change the way they use social media.

IS militants, which used social media with particular skill, could be affected more than some of the other groups - such as Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida offshoot in Syria - analysts say.

Verifying the identity, location and affiliation of the accounts of extremists groups is nearly impossible. But they seemed to make no effort to cloak their anger on social media.

One user calling himself @Khalid_Maghrebi posted a photo of what he said was an innocent child killed in the strikes. The same image of the same dead toddler was used across numerous jihadist accounts, al though it was impossible to verify if the child was a victim of the strikes.

This user added that the strikes killed fighters from the UK and the Netherlands.

Another pro-extremist account, @MohammedGhazzal, who claims to have been on the ground where some of the strikes occurred, warned jihadists to be careful.

Extremists also noted that IS was not the only group targeted.

And there was anger at the US.

“Abu Rumaysah,” an influential disseminator of jihadist information, tweeted a veiled threat.

Let history record that it was USA that violently attacked the Caliphate first. May it be etched in the hearts of every single Westerner.

 –  Abu Rumaysah (@aburumaysah1403) September 23, 2014

One account claiming to be on the “battlefields of Syria” and calling themselves @chechclearr, called the strikes “a war on Islam.”

Like cowards from the sky. This is like Ive said before not just a war on State, but a war on Islam, a war on the Muslims of Syria and Iraq.

 –  Isrāfīl Yılmaz (@chechclearr) September 23, 2014

Anger among militants was also pointed at the Arab states which reportedly joined the US in the strikes, including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Qatar.

Celebrating #SaudiNationalDay on the same day your apostate king helped the U.S. killing Muslims in #Syria! What a great day for your king

 –  خالد المغربي (@Khalid_Maghrebi) September 23, 2014

This category of Tweet could be harmful to the militants’, particularly IS’s, cause, says Erin Saltman of the London-based Quilliam Foundation, a counterterrorism think-tank.

“The depiction of the enemy is becoming larger and larger,” she said, noting the countries joining the US are large Sunni Arab countries. She said adding Muslim countries to the enemies list could leave IS “marginalized as the extremist terrorist organization that they are.”

One user, @ArmyOvJustice, who claims to be “witnessing the birth of the caliphate,” predicted the Arab countries would soon stop participating in the strikes. 

Saltman said airstrikes could change the way extremists, particularly IS, uses social media.

Compared to al-Qaida, which used a very centralized method of disseminating its propaganda, ISIS is extremely decentralized, she said.

“ISIS took a new approach so that information could be spread out in as many languages and as fluently as possible,” she said.

First off, the bombing could simply make it harder to tweet, said Jytte Klausen a Brandeis University professor and founder of the Western Jihadism Project, which focuses on jihadi activities in the West.

“Bombing Raqqa may take down Internet connectivity for a while,” she said, adding that temporary satellite connections would likely limit the impact of any terrestrial disruption.

Saltman said that now that the US bombing Syria, IS might try to more tightly control its social media output, because some of the information could be used against IS. But she said it would be hard to do that with “such a decentralized group of actors in different localities.”

“You wonder how much that's monitored,” she said.

Robbed of a freewheeling social media presence, IS could find itself hamstrung.

“With social media it’s easier to tell people you’re stronger than you are, she said. “Many researchers are arguing that this is not an incredibly strong army. The longer they are left alone, they more validity they seem to have. The more successful they seem, the more people will join.”

 

Tiffany Williams is a senior staffer for the Global Economy Project of the Institute for Policy Studies and the coordinator of the Beyond Survival Campaign at the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

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