Asian workers work at a construction site in the Gulf emirate of Dubai in this file image. Dubai is one of the locations for some of Bangladesh's 10 million migrant workers who are mostly employed in the Middle East. (Photo by Karim Sahib/AFP)
Ten years ago, Kazi Abu Bakkar ran a small grocery shop in his village in Chittagong district in southeastern Bangladesh. Despite his earnest efforts, Bakkar could barely make a profit of 5,000 taka (US$63) per month.
To change his fortune, he decided to move to Dubai in 2006 and work in a shop. He borrowed 500,000 taka from a local moneylender to pay for his visa and airfare.
In Dubai, he earned about 20,000 taka per month despite working long shifts. After paying his expenses, Bakkar could only send 10,000-15,000 taka home every month.
After working 10 years in Dubai, he still could not pay back the high-interest loan and could not make a better life for his wife and two sons.
"He was upset that his dream was shattered but he didn't have the choice to return. He had the debt to pay back and had to pay for the family," said Kazi Muhammad Shahjahan, a nephew of Bakkar.
"With the money he spent on migration, he could have done some good business here at home. But he was interested in changing his fortune quickly," he said.
Presumably, physical and psychological pressure took a hard toll on Bakkar. Eventually, in August 2016, he fainted and collapsed at his workplace and died on the way to a hospital, aged 45.
His family was told he died of a massive heart attack but they could not believe it.
"He didn't have any major disease. Sometimes he used to suffer from fever and muscle pains but I never heard of heart problems. It's really hard to believe he suddenly died of a heart attack," said Sharmina Akter, wife of Bakkar.
Akter has been facing hard times since her husband's death. She maintains the family renting her grocery shop and with donations from Bakkar's brothers.
"After receiving the dead body, the government provided 35,000 taka for the funeral and promised 300,000 taka compensation, which has yet to be handed down. It could be a vital help for the family but we don't know if we will ever get it," said Shahjahan, Bakkar's nephew.
Church cares for migrant workers
Over the past six years, Caritas Bangladesh has worked for the rights of migrant workers through its Social Welfare and Community Development project. It runs seven centers across Bangladesh, providing assistance and advocacy for people willing to work abroad.
"We conduct orientation programs and assist them in obtaining passports, visas and medical certificates. We also help them get low interest loans from the bank, send money safely home and instruct them on rules and regulations in the country they intend to go," said Rosaline Gomes, a program officer at Caritas Dhaka.
"We always advise them to use legal channels for migration so they do not get duped by fake agencies who promise false jobs for large sums of money. We also help them know where they can find help if they face any trouble," she said.
Gomes said that Caritas has created dozens of community-based organizations in their working areas to spread awareness about safe migration.
"By working abroad illiterate and non-skilled workers can make a good income if they are well informed, trained and aware about benefits and risks. Then they don't suffer from the unnecessary pressure that can lead to an untimely death," she added.
Death toll hits vital sector
Like Abu Bakkar, 3,481 Bangladeshi migrant workers died while working overseas and their bodies were repatriated in 2016, according to the Expatriate Welfare Desk of the Ministry of Expatriate Welfare. It is the highest number of deaths in 45 years.
Altogether 29,958 migrant workers have returned dead since 2005. The government has no statistics for dead workers buried overseas.
Most of the dead workers were below 50 in striking contrast to the country's average life expectancy of nearly 70. Nearly half of the workers died of heart attack and cardiac diseases in 2016, while at least a quarter of them were killed on the road or in workplace accidents.
Bangladesh has about 10 million migrant workers, mostly employed in the Middle East, with 20 million in Saudi Arabia alone. Besides the country's burgeoning US$25 billion garment industry, remittance sent by migrant workers makes a vital contribution to the country's coffers. More than a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the World Food Program.
The country earned over US$15 billion in foreign remittance in 2016, largely credited to migrant workers, according to data from the Bangladesh Bank.
Despite being such a vital sector, there has been no survey to investigate the sudden death of Bangladeshi migrant workers abroad even though migrant organizations are concerned.
Tasneem Siddiqui, chairperson of the Refugee and Migratory Movement Research Unit, pointed out that loneliness, constant tension and poor living and working conditions cause unexpected deaths.
"Most of the workers spend huge amounts of money on migration and they engage in backbreaking jobs over longer shifts to get the money back and pay for their family. They mostly work and live in deplorable conditions and suffer from chronic tension. Moreover, they are gripped by loneliness, being away from their family and relatives for a long time," she told ucanews.com.
"Expatriate workers are our assets as they keep our economy alive by working hard abroad and making great sacrifices in their personal lives. We can't let their lives end all of a sudden. The government must take steps to make the lives of migrants better through bilateral and multilateral talks and negotiations," she added.
The government's plan
Zahid Anwar, assistant director of the state-run, Wage Earners' Welfare Board said that the government is concerned.
"The government is serious about the rights of migrant workers as our country's well-being depends on the well-being of the workers. So, we provide briefing sessions for them, making them aware about laws, roads, weather and effective monetary dealings in the country," Anwar said.
"Sometimes, they don't get the expected job or face lawsuits and we let them know how they can reach our embassies and seek assistance," he said.
"In recent years, the number of overseas migrant workers has risen and so has the number of deaths. We can say 10 deaths per day is high, but considering the number expatriate workers, it is not very high," he said.
In the case of death and compensation, the government only assists migrant workers who went abroad legally.
"We help repatriate the body and offer money for the funeral immediately. If a worker gets seriously ill or paralyzed, we make efforts to compensate and rehabilitate them," Anwar said.
"For dead workers, we contact their employers for compensation according to their contracts, insurance policies and withheld pay. If we can't manage that, we provide the compensation from our own funds," he added.
Jyoti Gomes, regional director of Caritas Dhaka said that the government should not wash its hands by providing money to the dead worker's family.
"The death of a breadwinner numbs the whole family and providing money can't be the only way to help. The government needs to offer substantial support for a certain period and ensure education and job opportunities so the family can stand upright again," Gomes said.