Bangladeshi women migrants face abuse and health hardships abroad

Nov 24, 2009

UNDP report outlines policies for sending and host countries to protect migrant women

Dhaka – A majority of Bangladeshi women migrants work as domestic workers in the Arab States. Many of them face physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their employers.  Subject to mandatory testing they are deported when they test positive for HIV. These are some of the findings of a study released here today by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and OKUP (Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program).

“The economic gains generated by migrant workers are enormous, reaching almost 9.4 per cent of GDP in Bangladesh in 2007,” said Stefan Priesner, UNDP Country Director. “It is therefore critical that good working conditions and support are provided to migrant workers throughout the migration cycle,” he added.

The report, "HIV vulnerabilities faced by women migrants: from Bangladesh to the Arab States," reveals the social, economic and health toll that migration imposes on emigrating women, particularly low-skilled ones who are lured by job prospects. The findings of the study are based on almost 250 interviews which included women migrant workers who experienced undocumented migration and faced vulnerable situations such as sexual abuse and deportation on the grounds of testing HIV positive. 

“Although migration itself is not a risk factor to HIV infection, the conditions under which some workers migrate and their living conditions in the host countries make them highly vulnerable to HIV,” says Dr. Salil Panakadan, UNAIDS Country Coordinator. “In many cases, HIV testing in both countries of origin and host countries breaches migrants’ rights – testing is undertaken without consent, counseling, confidentiality or support,” he says.

The Arab States are the primary destination for many migrant workers from Asia including Bangladesh. The host countries examined in the study are: Bahrain, Lebanon and UAE.

The Bangladesh study reveals that there is no minimum wage for Bangladeshi domestic workers either in Bahrain or in Dubai. The study found that domestic workers in Bahrain and Dubai are paid just around $100 a month.

Women migrants also face numerous hardships, including irregular payment of salaries, long working hours, physical and sexual abuse.  In situations of abuse, domestic workers sometimes resort to running away, which increases their vulnerability to other forms of exploitation, including forced prostitution or trafficking.

Domestic work in the Arab countries where the study took place and in Bangladesh is not covered by labour laws and women migrants, therefore, have no access to legal redress when exploited or abused.

“Many migrant workers around the world are subject to exploitation and mistreatment, and that is a worldwide problem that we are very concerned about,” says Engr. Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain, Honourable Minister for Labour, Employment, Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment. “Host countries and countries of origin have an equal responsibility to provide protective policies and programmes. However, progress is being made and there is more dialogue between origin and host countries which is helping us ensure that migrant’ rights are respected and protected while they are abroad.”

People move to other countries in search of improving their economic status. Often they are pushed into migrating because of poverty, socio-economic instability and inequality, political unrest, gender inequity, uneven distribution of resources and/or natural disasters. Without adequate preparation and knowledge about the various risks associated with movement few are aware of their vulnerability to HIV and human trafficking or know how to protect themselves says the UNDP-OKUP study.

“When analyzing the unsafe conditions that Bangladeshi women face when migrating to work overseas, we found that the absence of laws and regulations in the recruitment process for migrant domestic workers and the poor working conditions they face once on site render women very vulnerable, altogether contributing to a higher risk of contracting HIV,” says Shakirul Islam, Lead Researcher and Chairman of OKUP. “Inadequate pre-departure orientation on HIV and health vulnerabilities for departing migrants is also a big gap. Most importantly, although migrants are included in the country’s national strategic plan for HIV/AIDS, there is no national HIV response for migrant workers,” he says.

A majority of Bangladeshi migrants – around 60 per cent – find jobs through family networks and do not receive adequate pre-departure briefing.  For instance the Government’s Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET) runs just one pre-departure briefing centre for the whole country. Coupled with the weak monitoring system, the inability to reprimand defaulting recruitment agents, and loopholes in existing laws all contribute to continued violations of the compulsory pre-departure briefing policy.

The Bangladesh study, forms one of the country chapters of the regional report titled "HIV vulnerabilities faced by women migrants: from Asia to the Arab States," which launched earlier in March 2009.

“The regional report highlights that the deportation of HIV-positive migrants by host countries and the absence of reintegration programmes in countries of origin can be devastating for the health, well-being, and livelihoods of migrants and their families,” says Caitlin Wiesen, UNDP HIV Team Leader and Regional Programme Coordinator. “There is an urgent need to set up effective reintegration programmes for returning migrants and ensure their access to health services and livelihood options.”

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