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     Volume 7 Issue 30 | July 25, 2008 |

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A South Asian Approach to
Understanding Migration

Migration is a complex issue. Countries, which have been exporting manpower to the oil-rich Middle Eastern countries and South-East Asia, have received a great economic boost from remittances. On the flip side, there are horror stories of how migrant workers are treated by employers in the receiving countries and cheated by crooked recruiting agents. Migrant workers, or more specifically, blue-collar migrant workers, come from very low-income families. Most of the time, whole families are dependent on the income of this one person. Many sell their only possessions and borrow money from relatives to go abroad with the hope that they will work hard, repay the money quickly and start earning a substantial amount to support their families.

Work hard, they do. Unfortunately, many have their passports seized, their agreements torn up, and are generally underpaid and overworked. Confused and disillusioned in a strange country, trapped inside a language barrier, they get a further shock when they are herded together in single room inhuman living conditions. Some don't get any payment at all for months, but do not dare complain because the employers hold their passports hostage.

A regional symposium on the 'Deployment of Workers Overseas: A Shared Responsibility' was recently organised by the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment, Government of the People's Republic of Bangladesh and the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The symposium discussed recruitment policies and cooperation mechanisms between origin and destination countries. The two-day long symposium provided a venue for exchange of best practices on the preparation of workers for foreign the employment and provision of on-site services and monitoring.

There is a large deficit in the protection of migrant workers, not so much in terms of legal rights, but in the enforcement of these rights. Excessive fees paid by workers for recruitment, confiscation of the workers' travel documents by employers or sponsors, violation of employment contracts in the form of delayed payment of wages, long working hours, inadequate provision for the safety of workers in work sites, overcrowded housing, and physical harassment are common features of the contemporary migration phenomenon for Asia.

The Conclusions of the ILO Fourteenth Asian Regional Meeting (Korea, 2006) on Decent Work in Asia identified one of the priorities for national action: improving dialogue and the management of labour migration so as to benefit both sending and receiving countries and better protect the rights of migrant workers.

The latest symposium was organised in response to the priority accorded by member states to promoting dialogue on labour migration issues in the Asia Pacific region. Representatives from government agencies responsible for labour migration, employers' and workers' organisations, and representatives of the associations of recruiting agents from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka participated in the symposium. It was a platform for discussions on experience and knowledge gained from managing out-migration of workers from South Asia and for reviewing the relevance of ILO's Multilateral Framework on Labour Migration for the governance of migration in the region. The ILO and the Bangladesh Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment jointly organised the Symposium with support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (Dhaka), MIGRANT, and the ILO/EU Asian Programme on the Governance of Labour Migration.

Rights protection for South Asia's migrant workers is the major concern of this decade. South Asian migrants would be classified as highly vulnerable: large numbers take irregular routes; most are low skilled and young, and for some countries (though not Bangladesh), the majority of migrants are women.

More than 1.5 million South Asian workers are estimated to migrate every year, many of them destined for the Gulf region to perform construction, maintenance, and other service jobs. Counting only those who go through regular channels, more than 200,000 workers are estimated to depart every year from Sri Lanka, another 200,000 from Pakistan and many more from India and Bangladesh.

In 2007, remittances back to the region were estimated by the World Bank to have exceeded US$40 billion. Of these, India accounted for US$27 billion, Bangladesh US$6.4 billion, Pakistan US$6.1 billion, Sri Lanka US$2.7 billion, and Nepal US$1.6 billion.

"Bangladeshi migrants are known to be very hard working. Quite often they have invested not only the family savings but also the savings of a whole community. A lot of pressure is on them to succeed abroad, quite often in very difficult conditions," Dora Rapold, Ambassador of Switzerland, said in her inaugural speech, "Conditions of migration and rights of migrants in most of the countries continue to be an issue and a challenge, getting not sufficient attention. In many countries, migrant conditions need improvement, which requires regional exchange and cooperation."

The first session was titled 'ILO Multilateral Framework on Labour Migration and Contemporary Challenges in the Protection of Migrant Workers'. This session presented ILO's Multilateral Framework on Labour Migration, discussed its relevance to the challenges facing policy makers in the region, and exchanged of views on how it can be promoted to improve the governance of migration.

The title of the second session 'Promoting Fair Recruitment Practices for Safe and Regular Migration' focused on identifying key problems with recruitment and reviewing effective policies reducing the transaction costs involved in migration, preventing frauds, minimising graft and corruption, minimising mismatch, and controlling irregular migration. Recruitment agencies need to improve pre-recruitment and pre-departure briefings and services to migrant workers and trade unions should strengthen their advocacy of the rights of migrant workers.

The third session was titled, 'Promoting Safe Migration for Women'. Labour migration in the region is dominated by men except a few countries, like Sri Lanka, where women make up the majority of migrant workers. However, the share of women migrants in other countries in the region is also increasing, much of it through informal and irregular channels. Trafficking of women is a serious problem, even in Bangladesh.

The fourth session 'Migration A Shared Responsibility of Origin and Destination Countries' aimed at promoting ethical recruitment, establishing migrant resource centres in countries of origin and destination, establishing regional platform for regular dialogue on issues and problems in labour migration, proposing private sector participation and involving multinational corporations in promoting equal and fair treatment of migrant workers.

The welfare of migrant workers is a shared responsibility for both the sending and receiving countries. Recently a lot of countries have put partial bans on migrant workers from Bangladesh after media reports gave a negative image of them. Empowering migrant workers is essential before they leave the country. Countries must ensure migrants have access to justice and support services. Bangladesh, and all sending countries, need to properly and proactively regulate the manpower industry.

By TheStar Desk

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