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Bangladesh

Why are so many overseas Bangladeshi workers dying?

  • Almost 3,800 Bangladeshi nationals died while working abroad last year, the highest annual toll since 2005
  • The growing number of Bangladeshis dying overseas reflects the poor treatment of many migrant workers, say experts
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2019, 10:29pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 January, 2019, 3:38am

The death of a young Bangladeshi woman working in Jordan has sparked demands for the country to find out what is causing a rising number of overseas workers to come home lifeless.

Mousumi Akter, 20, left her home in rural Bangladesh in 2017 and travelled 5,000km (3,106 miles) to work as a maid in Jordan to support her struggling family. In less than two years, she was dead.

The woman was one of 3,793 Bangladeshis who died while working abroad last year, according to newly released government data, the highest annual toll since 2005.

Many poor families in Bangladesh depend on remittances from overseas workers to survive, but as the toll rises, more and more people are demanding to know why so many workers are coming back in body bags.

“Medical reports from Jordan say that she died due to a stroke,” Akter’s uncle Mohammad Imran Khan said. “But we noticed black marks on her body once it arrived, which suggested to us that she was tortured. Also, how can she suffer from a stroke? She was only 20.”

Khan said the government should have conducted a second autopsy to determine the true cause of his niece’s death – a procedure the family could not afford to pay for.

“Any kind of dead body that returns home should have a second autopsy,” he said.

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They are not the only family with doubts. Relatives of Bilal Hossain, who was 23 when he died, were initially told he had suffered a stroke.

They later learned, through his roommates in Saudi Arabia, that he was killed by an electric shock suffered while cleaning up water on a public street.

Data from the Wage Earners’ Welfare Board, a government agency, show that stroke was the official cause of more than 1 in 2 deaths of Bangladeshi workers overseas in November and December.

The Bangladesh government points out that the number of Bangladeshis taking up jobs abroad is also rising – official data show more than one million Bangladeshis got jobs abroad in 2017, a record high.

But experts said the growing number of dead reflected the poor treatment of many migrant workers.

“Stress plays a big role,” said CR Abrar, professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka. “Even before going there, they are having to spend so much. They have no idea about the pain they are about to go through ... We need more protective measures, because stress-related issues are ignored.”

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On Sunday, about 100 Bangladeshi workers, most of them women, returned from Saudi Arabia, where BRAC – a charity that provides counselling to returning migrants – said they had faced physical and mental abuse. Some were so seriously hurt they were hospitalised on their return, said BRAC.

The head of Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program, a research organisation that specialises in migrant issues, said the high cost of going abroad and the poor conditions workers had to endure were key factors behind the rising toll.

“Workers die because of a number of reasons. For one, they work in poor conditions,” said Shakirul Islam. “Secondly, they have to pay a high migration cost in order to get a visa to go work there. This is accomplished through loans. This in turn creates a mental pressure on the workers.”

Remittances from migrant workers are the second-highest source of foreign currency earnings for Bangladesh after clothes manufacturing, and both experts said the government needed to do more to help families establish the truth.

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“We need to think about this,” said Raunaq Jahan, a senior civil servant with the Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment. “If we feel that a dead body requires another autopsy, then why not? These are new issues that we need to think about.”

For the family of Mousumi Akter, any change will come too late.

“I used to speak to Mousumi once a week. The first few months were fine,” said her mother Anwara.

“But gradually she sounded upset. She would say that she had to work all day long without any breaks. The last time I spoke to her, she told me that she was going to come home before taking up her next job. But I don’t know what happened after that.

“I think they killed my daughter.”