Why do millions of migrants pay a heavy price to keep some Arab nations afloat?
The armed guard carrying the pump-action shotgun was quick to his feet, and out of the darkness of the lobby where he had been sheltering from the midday heat. The office of daily Prothom Alo in the centre of Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka has long needed protection. It is one of Bangladesh’s most read and most outspoken newspapers with a circulation upwards of four million.
Upstairs, inside an empty newsroom, Shariful Hasan is sitting at his desk following up on a lead. He is young, in his early thirties, with unruly black hair and wears a kurta, a traditional top that stretches to his knees, over blue jeans. His mobile phone rings almost constantly, with calls from around the world placed by desperate people in desperate situations.
It is Friday, and should be a day off. But Shariful’s phone still rings day and night, from Qatar, the UAE, Malaysia or Thailand. “Look at these,” Shariful says, pointing to the rows of folders and documents filed behind his desk. “I’ve been following the migrant story for nine years. I have all the case studies. Some of these even the government doesn’t have.” Each file is a story of someone’s exploitation, of someone stuck in a foreign country with no one to turn to. So they turn to Shariful.
“At midnight you are sleeping, and I’ll get a call from a worker in the Middle East,” he explains. “They are crying, saying, ‘Please, I am in great danger. Do something for me.’ It is my duty. We have to do something. Their calling doesn’t bother me. But when my phone rings I am afraid that it is another Bangladeshi being abused. When they call, I know they are in danger.”
His phone rings again, but this time it is a Bangladeshi TV crew, looking for information about a case of female domestic workers abused in the UAE, the big issue he is working on right now. Such was the level of abuse that Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania all banned female workers from seeking employment in the Middle East. Bangladesh, meanwhile, saw it as an opportunity.
A pyramid scheme of exploitation
According to Bangladesh government statistics, in 2015 20,952 female workers travelled to Saudi Arabia for work. In the first three months of 2016, already 20,036 have left. “The government get the remittances. According to the World Bank, Bangladesh is number seven in the world. Your reserve is strong. The government is happy.”
Over the past nine years Shariful has reported on some of the worst that humanity has to offer. He had stood on the edges of mass graves in Malaysia, full of murdered Bangladeshi migrants who would never be identified. He’s visited women seeking shelter in embassies to escape abusive employers. The worst cases have all come from the same region. “If I was to categorise,” Shariful says, “the worst conditions are in the Middle East.”
Bangladesh’s independence coincided with the rise of the Gulf states’ oil wealth. Following the 1973 OPEC oil crisis, when the Gulf’s oil-producing nations led an embargo, the price of a barrel of crude oil quadrupled. The UAE, Saudi Arabia and (later) Qatar had money to burn and an almost-insatiable appetite for migrant workers – the men who built the towers, pumped the gas and cleaned the malls, while the women were employed to keep the home and tend to the children.
Today Bangladeshi workers are among the largest groups of migrants in all the Gulf, yet as Shariful’s row of files show, they are often treated with contempt. Numbers are fluid, but according to the UN over seven million Bangladeshis are living abroad. Well over two million can be found in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
At first, workers found themselves moving to the Middle East thanks to an informal network of recruitment. A worker in Abu Dhabi or Riyadh would be asked about vacancies at his company, and then recruit friends and family, in effect becoming a recruiter himself. Back home, they were not viewed favourably. “There was a large degree of antipathy from the state towards migrant workers,” explains Dr Chowdhury Abrar, director of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit at the University of Dhaka.
“They were viewed as the lucky ones who had got to the Middle East, even though a good number came back empty-handed and endured all kinds of harassment ‒ not being paid wages, not being placed in their jobs, being arbitrarily deported.”
Migrant workers were also depicted in Bangladeshi popular culture as being silly, frivolous individuals with their heads in the clouds. They were often portrayed negatively in teleplays on Bangladeshi television, labelled Dubaiwallahs: men who were obsessed with improving their status and would, among other things, demand that the recruitment fees be paid for by any marriage dowry.
But the government soon changed its opinion – or at least changed how money was transferred home – as soon as the scale of the money being made was understood. “The government has been very interested in harnessing the remittances sent of migrant workers,” says Dr Abrar.
The entire system of getting to the Middle East is built on a pyramid scheme of corruption and exploitation, and it works like this. A potential migrant worker is likely to be from a rural area, poor and illiterate. He will need to sell land or borrow money, or both. A fixer is found to do that for a fee. Now in debt, a middle man from his village will arrange for him to first get a passport.
“In theory anyone can get a passport,” says Dr Abrar. “But I need a police verification. And the policeman will take his sweet time and it may take months for him to sort it out. He may demand money. I am an illiterate worker, so I might struggle. So I need a middle man to make sure that a police report is lodged in my favour.”
Then a visa is needed. That requires a recruitment consultant, who buys the visas and then sends out another middle man to the countryside to find the workers. All in all, there may be “four or five tiers” according to Dr Abrar, with each tier needing to be paid: “It is paid as a package but the money is distributed along the line.” The cost for a visa to Qatar is between 350,000 and 400,000 taka, around £3,500.
According to the IMF’s projected 2016 figures, per capita income in Bangladesh is just over £1,000. There is no guarantee of a job at the other end either. Agencies regularly take the money from 200 people, even if they only have 20 visas. “They pay the money back,” believes Dr Abrar, “but by then they have earned interest in that time.”
Corruption is rife. The going bribe to secure a messenger’s job in Dhaka, the lowest entry-level job in Bangladesh, is between 300,000 and 400,000 taka. It requires a little more to secure a job as a police constable. Government jobs are even more costly. One university graduate, who requested not to be named for fear of harming their employment chances, had passed two of the civil service’s gruelling entrance exams.
Next came the interview stage, which wasn’t really an interview at all. When potential recruits meet the examiner for their face-to-face interview, they will be expected to hand over a bribe of 1.2 million taka, around £12,000. The monthly salary is 20,000 taka, around £200. “But you make it up elsewhere, ” the graduate explained. By making it up, they mean by extracting bribes when the next person is hired, with smaller bribes further down the food chain. And the cycle continues. “Bangladesh is one of the most corrupt countries in the world,” says Dr Abrar. In Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perception Index, Bangladesh was ranked 139th out of 167.
If the worker makes it to the Middle East, they then face the myriad other problems (the heat, non-payment of wages, treatment as a third class resident, appalling conditions of work and accommodation). But unlike other countries, the Bangladeshi embassies are slow to help. “They do not stand up for the migrants with as much strength and support as they should,” says Dr Abrar.
Why? I ask.
“We are always fearful as a country if we speak too much about rights and good treatment of migrant workers we would lose the labour market,” he replies. “We negotiate from a very weak position without realising that they need our labour force.”
Dr Abrar has witnessed the conditions in the fastest growing destination for migrant workers in Bangladesh, Qatar ‒ a major destination because of the huge building projects surrounding the 2022 World Cup finals (according to government figures 211,000 Bangladeshis left for Qatar in 2014 and 2015, almost half of the entire number of visas issues for Qatar since 1976) ‒ “I visited and there is a large number of Bangladeshi workers unemployed, unpaid, who have paid hefty amounts to go, and then there’ s no job,” he says.
For officials in Gulf states, this problem is largely down to the middle men, but for Dr Abrar that doesn’t make sense. The governments in the Middle East have to issue the visas. Someone, in those governments, he says, is getting very rich: “These are countries where the state is all powerful. If they do not allow [the middle men] to operate, they can’t. There is a collusion of state agencies and private companies and the middle men. They are in a state of denial. It is a royal family and big companies involved in recruitment. There is, of course, collusion.”
In Bangladesh, however, the recruitment industry is a powerful lobby. It is effectively responsible for as much as 10 per cent of the country’s GDP. “They have MPs, they fund political parties, one minister makes his money from fleecing workers,” says Dr Abrar. Meanwhile, the workers themselves – some of the poorest, most vulnerable people in Asia – continue to leave for the Middle East, believing that they will be the lucky ones and that these scare stories won’t happen to them.
“When they see a house being built by a successful migrant, who in two years is able to send his kids to a good school, he gets carried away with the demonstration effect,” Abrar says. “They forget the other three failures in the village.”
‘How can a man of 25 die of a heart attack?’
Yet for Shariful at the Daily Prothom Alo, the effect of this corrupt, dysfunctional, impossibly Byzantine system isn’t about growth statistics or skills and training policy. It is about the body bags and ruined lives.
He goes to the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport every week. Every day its departure hall is full of thousands of hopeful workers leaving for a new life in the Gulf. Every week, Shariful has stood and counted the bodies as they have returned: eight to ten bodies every day from the Middle East; every year more than 3,000 dead ‒ 15,000 since he started counting. “The people going to the Middle East, they are not just remittance machines. They are human beings. They have a life. They have their respect,” he says, now close to tears.
“When he is going, he’s only thinking, ‘I’ve paid five lakh [500,000 taka, around £5 ,000]. I need to earn that money.’ What happens? Heart attacks. Heart disease. Aged 32, 33? How can a man of 25 die of a heart attack? Why? He is working 18 to 20 hours under pressure, working in the heat, worried about money. And his owner is not a good human being.”
Shariful’s voice breaks as he lists the indignations he has seen and reported on. He has been threatened several times for his work, especially in exposing the links between politicians, businessmen and the powerful recruitment agents, all of whom he believes are in business with the governments of the Middle East. “There are many powerful groups there,” Shariful says. “And the condition of democracy and the free press is well known.”
There has at least been one positive change. The 2022 World Cup has seen a positive effect in Qatar, he believes. Workers are now choosing to go there rather than UAE. “Compared to the UAE and Saudi, Qatar is in a good condition,” Shariful reckons. “They are sending the wages of workers into bank accounts. There’s a toll-free number to call [to report labour violations]; a human rights office. If you make a complaint, they investigate the case. They are taking actions, which is absent in the UAE. Because of the focus of the World Cup, everyone is looking at Qatar.”
Qatar still had problems, he knows, not least the criminally low wages paid by one of the richest countries in the world, but Shariful is hopeful this will focus attention elsewhere, on countries that have got away without any real scrutiny: “The whole world is focusing on Qatar… but we need to focus the same on the UAE. ”
The blame, for Shariful, Dr Abrar and others, is a difficult thing to place. There are so many fingers in so many pies that it is hard to pin it on any one actor, or any one country.
“Who is responsible is the critical question,” says Shariful. “I would blame the person violating the rights first. The person who is doing the torturing, he is responsible. And then it is his government who is responsible, because if he tortures and they are not taking action they will keep repeating their actions.”
While the narrative in the West, and in the Middle East, has been of migrant labourers toughing it out for a few years to return home as heroes, building homes and educating their kids so they don’t have to follow suit, the reality is rarely even close to that. Instead, so many people come back broken that Shariful believes it is having a significant effect on Bangladesh’ s psychological health, and could even be contributing to the growing Islamic radicalisation in the country.
“When the dead bodies come back to Bangladesh, they were usually the only people earning, so the whole family is in a worse condition. His children, for their whole life, know their father died in the UAE. Ask the people with long-term conditions. They spent their whole life in the Middle East, psychologically alone. Long term the country gets the remittances, the reserve is strong. But what happens in 20 years, when those millions come home?”
James Montague has reported on sport, politics and culture from more than 50 countries for The New York Times, CNN.com, GQ, World Soccer, The Blizzard, The Guardian, New Statesman, Esquire and The Bleacher Report among many others. His radio reports can also be heard regularly on the BBC World Service’s World Football show. He has published three books and is a founding editor of Delayed Gratification, the world’s first slow journalism publication.