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Tuesday, December 18, 2007
OP-ED

Ratifying the UN Convention on migrant worker rights

Photos: Jessica lim / Real pictures

The UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families 1990 came into force in June 2005. The Convention represents the most comprehensive instrument available to define the social, economic and cultural rights of migrant workers and their family members.

Bangladesh is a signatory to the Convention, but is yet to ratify it. This policy brief is part of a prolonged and sustained campaign of Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) since 1999 for ratification of the Convention. It is prepared to mark the International Migrant Workers Day on December 18, and to reiterate civil society demands to the government of Bangladesh to respect the rights of migrant workers by ratifying the Convention.

The Convention
The UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families 1990 (hereinafter referred to as 'the Convention') came into force in June 2005. The Convention is the most comprehensive instrument available for defining the rights of migrant workers and their families. It recognises the vulnerability of migrant workers and their family members, and their need for international protection.

Article 2 of the Convention defines a migrant worker as "a person who is to be engaged, is engaged, or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a state of which he or she is not a national." The Convention recognises the need to provide protection not only to migrant workers but also to their family members, without discrimination (articles 4, 7).

The Convention distinguishes between regular and irregular migrant workers, recognising that whilst regular migrant workers have a legitimate claim to more rights it is important to safeguard the fundamental human rights of all.

Importance of migration to Bangladesh
Labour migration from Bangladesh has a long history, with the government of Bangladesh promoting international labour migration as part of an overall development plan since 1976.

It is estimated that there are 4.55 million Bangladeshis working abroad as migrant workers, with over 90% living in the Middle East and in South East Asia. This excludes the Bangladeshi diaspora in the UK and North America, estimated at a further 1.5 million persons.

Migration plays a critical role in sustaining the Bangladeshi economy. In 2005-06, official remittances into Bangladesh constituted $4.8 billion, equal to 7.73% of GDP, and over three times higher than net aid flows into Bangladesh. It is estimated that in 2006-07 remittances will exceed $6 billion.

The employment of Bangladeshis overseas reduces pressure on the labour market within Bangladesh. In addition, it has supported domestic job creation in both the public and private sectors.

A new ministry has been created, and the size of other ministries and departments like civil aviation, customs and immigration departments and the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training is, to a large extent, determined by the flow of migrant workers. A powerful private sector has emerged centering the processing of migration, employing 2 million persons as private recruiting agents, sub-agents, travel agents, and medical and transportation workers.

Vulnerabilities of the migrant labour force
Bangladeshi migrant workers have suffered from unscrupulous recruitment practices, leading to high costs, fraudulent practices and pauperisation. In destination countries, due to the arbitrariness of employers and discriminatory policies of receiving states, migrants experience exploitation and the loss of rights in the form of low and irregular wages, bad working conditions and restricted job mobility. Upon returning, Bangladeshi migrants experience difficulties in reintegrating due to the absence of an institutional support system.

Bangladesh: Signatory to the Convention
In 1997, the government of Bangladesh agreed, in principle, to ratify the Convention and sought the advice of the Law Commission in this regard. The Law Commission observed that the Convention has only a minor provision that contradicts the legal system of Bangladesh, which it felt could be addressed easily by entering a reservation. Otherwise, the Convention could be ratified, according to the Law Commission.

Accordingly, on October 7, 1998, Bangladesh signed the Convention; but still has not ratified the instrument. This is despite an active campaign by the civil society and policy advocates, and the huge significance of the labour migration sector to the country's economy.

The key justification offered for non-ratification of the Convention is the concern that it may affect Bangladesh's overseas labour market and foreign exchange earnings from this sector. There is a fear that because other migrant sending countries have not yet ratified the Convention, Bangladesh will find it more difficult to send workers abroad.

These concerns are not based upon any research. In the negotiations between delegations of the Bangladesh government and labour receiving countries, the latter never expressed any concern about this convention. Besides, other major labour sending countries have ratified the Convention, notably Egypt, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Syria. These countries have not faced adverse repercussions in sending their workers.

If Bangladesh ratified the Convention its obligations would be: to put in place the provisions of pre-departure information campaigns and training sessions; monitoring and imposition of sanctions on brokers and recruiters operating illegally; and the provision of extending improved consular services to citizens working abroad.

Over the years, the government has taken some important measures to better govern the migration sector. It has established a new ministry, prepared a strategy to explore and consolidate labour markets, and introduced a system of recruitment through a computerised database. More importantly, in 2006, Bangladesh became the first country in South Asia to legislate an Overseas Employment Policy.

The policy empowers both men and women the right to choose overseas employment from an equal stand. It respects the dignity and security of workers and ensures the social protection of the left behind families of migrants.

The current caretaker government has undertaken a series of measures to curb the irregularities in the recruitment industry and has greatly increased market access on better terms and conditions. In the recent past, it proactively responded to the problems faced by migrant workers in Malaysia by sending high level delegations, suspending High Commission staff suspected of malpractice, increasing the number of labour attaches and dissolving the executive committee of the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira).

One can see that successive governments, out of their own concern about migrants' vulnerability, have undertaken the above steps, which involved financial commitment. Therefore, the point often raised by the members of bureaucracy that ratification of the convention would put Bangladesh into major financial commitment may not be that important. Besides, good business sense should make the government commit resources to a sector that has fetched $6 billion worth of foreign exchange in 2007. There is no doubt that investment in migrant protection measures will substantially increase earnings from the sector.

Why should Bangladesh ratify?
Bangladesh is a major sending country, and in protecting the rights of its migrant workers it should do its utmost to meet international standards. The 1990 Convention provides the best framework for such protection.

Because it is the most important foreign exchange earning sector further financial commitment to the sector, that may follow ratification, is likely to increase efficiency of the agencies concerned, protect the migrant workers from vulnerability, improve the welfare services and further increase the remittance flow.

The experiences of Sri Lanka and the Philippines show that ratification will not adversely affect Bangladesh's relationships with labour receiving countries.

Ratification will convey the message that the government cares for its migrant workforce. It will also enhance Bangladesh's image as a country that upholds migrants' rights.

The Bangladesh Law Commission has recommended ratification of the Convention.

We urge the government
On behalf of the 4.5 million Bangladeshi short-term migrant workers and 1.5 million long-term diaspora, their associations and different civil society bodies, RMMRU (Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit) urges the government to immediately ratify the Convention and frame national legislation to implement the provisions of the Convention.

Tasneem Siddiqui is a Professor of Political Science, DU, and member of RMMRU.

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