Risking death and abuse in foreign lands

Risking death and abuse in foreign lands

Shahadat Mollick is a poor landless farmer in Bangladesh who made his son Alauddin drop out of school when he was in the ninth grade to find work and feed the family.

Unable to find a good job at home, Mr Alauddin headed for Malaysia in 2012, where he went to work in construction . He never came back - alive.

The bodies of more than 3,000 Bangladeshis are shipped home each year from the foreign countries where they had been working. Almost one-third of them die in workplace accidents. Mr Alauddin was one of them.

"Everything ended with the tragic death of my son," said Mr Mollick.

Some 80 per cent of Bangladeshi workers have jobs in foreign countries. More than seven million of them, mostly working in the Middle East, send home almost US$15 billion (S$20 billion) each year.

But that figure is deceptive. Few Bangladeshis have the most basic professional and educational skills, so they work mainly as cleaners or construction workers. Many head for the Middle East, where they are among the most poorly paid, earning US$250 to US$400 a month, barely enough to cover food, clothing and medicine.

Some 200,000 Bangladeshi women earn even less and live in tougher social conditions than the men. Their employers rarely allow them to go out or talk to their families back in Bangladesh.

To prevent workers from switching jobs, many employers confiscate their passports.

There have also been reports of these workers, especially women, suffering verbal and physical abuse. The Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit, Warbe Development Foundation in Dhaka and Cram Asia found that Bangladeshi workers are not even given access to minimal medical facilities abroad. In most cases, the workers do not have medical insurance.

Yet many work in unhygienic and risky conditions and suffer heart attacks, strokes or other health issues on the job.

Despite all this, the job market is so bad in Bangladesh that workers are willing to pay a minimum of 300,000 taka (S$5,000) to 500,000 taka each to private recruiting agencies in the Middle East.

Most have to borrow this money. So when they do not get the expected jobs or salary after reaching their destinations, they face further hardship in having to repay the loans. It can take them up to two years just to earn the money they had to spend to go abroad.

Although Mr Mollick did not have the money to pay for such a trip, Mr Alauddin convinced him to borrow 350,000 taka from a non-governmental group and their relatives with the promise of repaying it once his son reached Malaysia. Mr Alauddin went abroad to work for a Malaysian construction firm in 2012. He earned RM550 (S$204) a month, putting in 14 hours a day.

"My son was very happy after finding a job in Malaysia," Mr Mollick said. "We were happy because it is very difficult to get a job in the country nowadays."

Then one night in August last year, a neighbour who was also working in Malaysia called Mr Mollick to say that Mr Alauddin had been critically injured at work. Later, the Bangladesh High Commission in Kuala Lumpur had worse news - his son had been killed in the accident.

Mr Mollick said: "It shattered all our dreams."

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