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Legal aid eludes women migrant workers

Arafat Ara | May 22, 2021 00:00:00

Women migrant workers are not getting due legal support from the existing arbitration system, leaving them into vulnerable condition at their families and societies, according to a recent study.

Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP) conducted the study titled 'Access to Justice for Bangladeshi Migrant Workers: Improving the System' which was unveiled in March last.

The research followed the cases of 123 out of 262 returnee women who lodged complaints with Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET) 'arbitration' in 2019, mostly for recovering unpaid salaries and compensation for forced work and torture.

Of the 123 cases, nearly 31 per cent had been resolved by December 2019. The remaining 69 per cent cases have not been settled yet.

Out of the cases, 26 per cent were resolved within 90 days of filing written complaints with BMET and 5 per cent between 90 and 180 days. But 69 per cent or 85 of the complaints are yet to be settled.

Of unresolved cases, around 58 per cent have never been called by the 'arbitration cell' for hearing.

About 41 per cent of women complainants had been called once for hearing by the arbitration. The rest of the women had to attend several hearings with no outcome at all.

The research also found that the majority of women who sought legal assistance in 2019returned home between 2018 and 2019.

Shakirul Islam, chairman of OKUP, said arbitration should be institutionalised and workers-friendly so that victims can lodge complaints easily.

Existing arbitration mechanism is not fair and helpful to the workers, he observed.

The women shared that they often faced threats from the representatives of recruiting agents and sub-agents as well as humiliation, unequal and unfair treatment in the arbitration process.

Many women migrant workers who appeared in the BMET arbitration reported that they felt re-victimized while they were claiming their rights to justice and remedies.

The migrant workers generally come from poor educational, social and financial backgrounds, which results in a lack of knowledge about the law and the arbitration system, and low confidence to negotiate in the arbitration.

Using of words, gestures, sitting arrangements, and long waiting hours etc. further weaken the self-esteem and confidence of the migrant workers and restrain them from equal participation in the arbitration process, the report said.

Overseas Employment and Migration Management Rules 2017 set out the operational procedures of the BMET arbitration but the mentioned timeframe to complete arbitration is unclear. The rule is to complete each case within a maximum of 90 working days.

The experience of the resolved cases of 38 returnee women migrant workers in the BMET arbitration showed that around 54 per cent of the women received an amount between Tk 5,000 and Tk 20,000 each. Nearly 26 per cent of the women received an amount between Tk 20,000 and Tk 40,000 each. Besides, around 20 per cent of the women received Tk 40,000 to Tk 80,000.

Compensation was not fair for the amount owed or the psychological impact of abuse and exploitation faced by the migrants.

The study also found that a lack of structural and standard operational procedures to conduct BMET 'arbitration' not only puts the returnee migrant workers, but also the civil society organisations which provide legal aid to the survivor migrant workers, in a humiliating and confrontational situation.

The research has highlighted the experiences of the survivor women migrant workers who went through sexual and psychological abuse, exploitation and violation of rights during recruitment and employment in the destination countries and the consequences they faced upon return.

All 262 returnee women migrant workers testified that they had been abused physically, psychologically, or sexually at the employers' houses. Around 60 per cent of the women reported that they often faced physical torture.

The majority of returnee women migrant workers shared their experiences of brutal physical torture by the employers, family members, relatives and others.

Nearly half of the women (133 out of 262) asserted that they had become the victim of forced labour.

Some women said they have had no mercy even when they were ill. Around 37 per cent of the women claimed that they had been forced to work in several houses of the employers' relatives.

They were never paid any additional wages for extra work they did in other houses. Some employers even used these women as 'freelance domestic workers' for commercial purposes.

According to a Wage Earners Welfare Board report, 140 women migrants died in different destination countries in 2019, most of whom allegedly committed suicide while Brac reported 24 suicides among Bangladeshi women migrant workers abroad in 2019.

Around 16 per cent of the returnee women reported that they had been sexually abused and exploited at the employers' houses or at the offices of the recruiting agents in the destination countries.

The women migrant workers had also been economically exploited by their employers. Around 36 per cent of the 262 women were forced to return home without salaries for periods of work ranging from one month to 48 months. Nearly 52 per cent said they used to receive salaries irregularly. The employers used to hold their salaries for four months or more for no specific reasons.

The research recommended establishing a separate arbitral tribunal' under the direct supervision of the expatriates' welfare and overseas employment ministry, having separate office and necessary human resources including a pool of qualified officials.

The arbitral tribunal needs to be decentralised at district level to ensure easy access for migrant workers who come from remote villages.

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