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Overseas migration of women workers from Bangladesh
Rita Afsar

          BANGLADESH is one of the few countries that have experienced women's entry into formal manufacturing sector both within the country and abroad without attaining universal primary education. It has happened so despite the prevailing Islamic ethos, purdah and patriarchal values. The ready made garment (RMG) sector has generated employment opportunities for more than two million labour of which more than 70 per cent are women who have predominantly migrated from rural areas. Nearly three-quarters of them belong to functionally landless families. It shows women's independent migration has taken place under a strategy for family survival through income diversification. This may be considered as an enigma in the context of gender stratification and patriarchal norms that govern gender relations in the country.
However, whilst kinship networks of the employers have played an important role in facilitating young women's migration from rural to urban areas, in course of time women have displayed that they are able to curve out a niche for them in the urban labour market. In many cases, they have earned recognition as the main bread winner of the family, a role hitherto exclusively reserved for men. Without going into further details of women's role and status, we may highlight that despite the negative stereotype of women's docility and vulnerability in the process of their migration and employment, making passage to the Middle East and creating demand for lady workers in those countries' RMG sector display women's agency. Some of the managers of RMG factories in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) admit that although they preferred Sri Lankan women for their discipline and yet wanted to employ Bangladeshi women "as they are skilled and can work hard and are cheap to hire". It is important to understand the causes and consequences of international migration from a gender perspective. This is one example of skill export and women's agency that deserve appreciation and attention for policy intervention. Increased understanding of the situation of migrant women should lead to positive image of women's agency in addition to right based policies, programmes and actions to promote gender equality and harness benefits of migration while minimising its negative impacts.
Four out of every five women as opposed to a little over a quarter of male emigrants made their passage to the Middle East with the help of private recruiting agencies. Private recruiters are largely notorious for corruption with regard to anomalies in the job contract e.g. discrepancies between the promised wages and entitlements and actual benefits received by emigrant labour. It is also a fact that these agencies make a huge profit by transferring the employers' liability of the airfare and visa-fee to the migrants, which consumes 95 per cent of the total migration cost and it takes the initial two to three years to repay the creditors.
Workers from Bangladesh were also victims of bribery, forgery and cheating by recruiting agencies and employers. Despite that one cannot deny that private recruiters are harbingers for extending opportunities of overseas employment to the poorer segment of population, particularly for women who do not have networks that could provide information about how to enter a foreign country or employment unlike men migrants. Around a third of the women labour migrants from Bangladesh, who migrated to overseas manufacturing sector, were from below poverty level income families. The experience of working in a RMG industry in Dhaka puts a premium on overseas employment opportunity for more than 80 per cent of women.
Women were attracted by the wage differential to overseas jobs, which was more than thrice than what they earned in Bangladesh. On an average they earn US $ 143 (approximately), remitted around 58 per cent of their income and save around a quarter per month to meet any exigencies that might arise during their stay abroad. However, with the same level of education, working hours and length of service, a woman is earning 44 per cent of a Bangladeshi male worker in UAE -- an evidence of blatant gender discrimination. The gender ratio in wages in the RMG sector is estimated at 0.77 in general and 0.87 for the skilled production operators, showing a substantially narrower gap prevailing in the home country.
Since women migrants in the UAE predominantly work as skilled operators, it points out clearly that while they gain in terms of cash income, they are more humiliated ideologically. Gender discrimination is also visible in the living and working conditions for emigrant women workers' restricted mobility (mostly escorted during one or two free hours on alternate Friday), locked in female boarding houses, and more frequently salary cuts on account of sick leave than their male colleagues. On an average, the salary cut takes away 22 per cent of their monthly wage. The poor quality of food, congested shelter, unsafe and uncomfortable bed and heavy workload are some of the major complaints that I came across during my fieldwork in UAE. However, one must bear in mind that they get free boarding and lodging -- facilities that are rare to come by in the home country with the exception of export processing zones. Prior to overseas migration, women RMG sector workers had to wage wars against adversities that they faced in meeting daily basic necessities of life in Dhaka city.
Remittances they sent, contribute 46 per cent to the household incomes and the income growth is estimated at 16 per cent after migration has occurred. However, the size of their remittances is half compared to their male compatriots although they sent proportionally 14 per cent more of their overseas income. Contribution of women's remittances to their household incomes at origin is modest when compared with male migrants' household that show 55 per cent increase. Staggeringly high gender based wage differential in the Middle East along with recency of migration of the female workers (1.8 years) might have attributed to the smaller size of remittances compared to that of male migrants. Notwithstanding that as migrants, women are sources of remittances that are used to improve the well-being of other family members and foster economic growth; they thus act as resources for development. For an example, expenditure on food and more particularly, on staple food has declined significantly (by 5.0 per cent) in the post migration period and the surplus thus released, is redistributed to meet education, followed by health and transportation costs. Increase in education and health expenditure is considered to be a positive indicator for human capital development. Subsequently net enrolment rate is higher for members of migrants' households at secondary and tertiary level (84 per cent and 18 per cent) than rural average (49 per cent and 11 per cent), and from in-depth interviews we found that a part of remittances has been used for children's coaching, a step toward capacity building and quality education.
Importance of women's migration to the family's well-being and for fostering country's economic growth must be recognised and integrated with country's Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP). In its social and development policies, the government should promote and protect the human rights of women to harness women's enabling role as resource for poverty reduction and sustainable development. It should also lobby with the other governments of the region for better, non-discriminatory and safer services trade through free flow of the semi-skilled and unskilled labour at the World Trade Organisation meeting. Pre-migration briefing sessions by Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET) must adopt a right-based approach to inform migrants about their rights and the obligations of their sponsors, which is currently missing. Along with private sector it should run better training for women based on the signals of the overseas labour market that will enable them to qualify for higher paid positions in countries of destination and would also help diminish their vulnerability to abuse. Access to training in the language of the host country is particularly important for the economic success of women and their ability to access jobs in the formal economy. NGOs working in the areas concerning the spread of IT activities such as Grameen Bank must bring families of poor migrants under its coverage. BMET must also give special training on accessing Internet services to migrants and their families prior to their departure. Bangladeshi Consular officers at receiving country can play a proactive role to end the wage discrimination on grounds of gender and ensure fair working and living conditions for women workers, using their diplomatic positions to engage the destination country in interceding in favour of the migrant women. Valuable lessons learned from successful models such as Philippines, Sri Lanka, etc. could be applied by involving NGOs.
The International Convention on the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families defining the rights of migrant workers and their families came into force since 2003. The Convention establishes a Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families to examine the reports of States parties, as well as a communications procedure. Since Bangladesh is one of the major labour sending countries it must regularly present reports of violation of human rights in the UN Commission on Human Rights. Migrant women should enjoy all of the rights applicable in international human rights law. Provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) are of particular importance to women. Other instruments of importance include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and conventions of the International Labour Organisation.
[The writer is a Senior Research Fellow and Head, Human Resources Division at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS)].


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