The other face of globalisation: Daily Star contributor

DHAKA (THE DAILY STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – The outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic has starkly revealed the other face of globalisation, particularly in the context of international migrant workers.

Integration of global labour market created a scope for the marginalised people of developing countries to benefit from the globalisation process through accessing employment overseas.

At the same time, globalisation has also exposed labour migrants to great vulnerabilities including life-threatening situations.

The Covid-19 crisis has had an unprecedented impact on the global trade and commerce, yet it is the migrant workers who have borne the cost more disproportionately than any other group, be it national workforce or citizens of a country.

During the whole period of this crisis, migrants have been serving in essential frontline jobs such as health care, transport, construction, agriculture and food processing industries in different destination countries.

Lack of protection of these workers is self-evident from the fact that the spread of Covid-19 has been disproportionally higher among the migrant communities; death rate is also the highest among them.

In many of the Gulf and other Arab countries, South East Asian or even some of the European countries during the months of March, April, and even May, migrants were seen on roads, shopping areas and other public places desperately looking for food and shelter.

In some cases, employers abandoned them, and in other instances, government authorities were busy apprehending them on the pretext that they were in irregular status. Taking advantage of the pandemic, many of these countries even deported them.

Bangladeshi migrants topped the list when it came to infected persons or people who were in sheer need of assistance.

Reports have noted that by July 2020, more than seventy thousand Bangladeshis were infected in 186 countries. By December 27, some 2,330 Bangladeshi migrants had succumbed to Covid-19 in 21 countries, according to Prothom Alo.

In Singapore, Bangladeshis constituted almost half of the migrants infected with Covid-19. One-fourth of those who died in Saudi Arabia due to Covid-19 are Bangladeshis. Out of the 328 who died due to Covid-19 in the UAE, 122 were Bangladeshis.

Along with Gulf and other Arab countries, Bangladeshi migrants were passing their days in acute hunger in European countries such as Spain, Italy or Portugal as well.

The countries of destination shrugged off their responsibility of taking care of its migrant workforce to the extent that Bangladesh government had to organise food and medicine for Bangladeshis in different parts of the world.

This has been despite the fact that various international normative frameworks and standards – such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Global Compact for Migration, and Guidelines for Migrants in Countries in Crisis – uphold that during a crisis situation, it is the responsibility of the destination countries to look after the migrants irrespective of their legal status.

Countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE declared Covid-19 testing free for all migrants irrespective of their legal statues.

In reality, Abdul, who died in July due to brain stroke, had informed his family before he passed away that he had all the symptoms of Covid-19 but was worried to secure treatment due to his irregular status.

Many migrants like Abdul may or may not have been infected by the virus, but passed away without treatment because of their fear of arrest and deportation. Migrants in irregular status or those holding so-called free visas for all practical purposes remained outside the purview of health care that these countries were supposed to provide them.

A survey of BCSM and RMMRU on forcibly returned migrants shows that thirty percent of these migrants residing in 17 countries lost their jobs.

Another forty per cent remained partially employed with a re-negotiated lower wage, and the rest on free visa could not get employment.

Without job or access to income, Fazar Ali took money from home to survive. Before returning to Bangladesh from Kuwait, Selim was surviving by spending his savings that he had generated over the last one year to pay for his visa renewal.

In this current unregulated globalisation framework, Bangladeshis like Fazar and Selim are the ones who have been subsidising the economies of the destination countries.

The vulnerability of female migrants has brought out a complex dimension of migrants’ vulnerabilities during crisis situations.

Under normal circumstances, live-in female domestic workers suffer way more hardship compared to those workers who stay outside. Covid-19, however, shows that job loss is almost non-existent among the live-in female domestic workers.

Nonetheless, in many instances, they had to agree to delayed payment of wages. With all members staying at home for most of the day, their workload had increased manifold.

Close scrutiny of their work by the employers as well as dissatisfaction of the employers did manifest in physical and verbal abuses.

Cleaners, manufacturing workers or live-out domestic workers may not have gone through similar physical and verbal abuses, but they lost their jobs either fully or partially. Their sheer survival in destination countries was at stake.

From early April, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Maldives started negotiating with Bangladesh government to take back its citizens who were working in their countries in irregular status.

They also pushed the idea of pardoning some of the convicted Bangladeshi migrants if the government brought them back.

Arresting and detaining migrants under the pretext of strict implementation of lockdown and drives against irregular migrants were some of the techniques used by the governments of destination countries to deport the workers.

Plainclothes members of law enforcing agencies picked up Bangladeshi workers from in front of their residences, shopping centres, roads, food stalls, and put them into detention camps and then deported them to Bangladesh.

Shafique, one such worker, remained in one pair of clothes in a detention camp for 28 days. With deep anguish, he said he had taken his shower wearing a plastic packet!

According to the Migrant Forum in Asia, the year 2020 has also witnessed millions of dollars of wage theft. Mohon Ali used to be paid a small portion of his salary and the rest of the salary used to be cleared at the end of the year.

Due to his arrest and arbitrary return, he could not get his payment from his employer. He left behind Tk 500,000 (S$7,819) of his hard-earned income in UAE.

The experiences of the Bangladeshi migrants in 2020 demonstrate that violation of the rights of workers is integral to the process of the current form of globalisation.

Covid-19 has essentially exposed that reality. In that sense, there has been little change since the time of the Great Depression of the 1930s, or from the times of oil crisis in 1973.

As during the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and the global financial crisis of 2009 and 2010, migrants are still being used as the safety valve to cushion the negative outcomes of the crisis.

It is unfortunate that in this age, labour-receiving countries can still get away with exposing migrants to extreme health risks, keeping them effectively outside the health care and other social safety nets, and deporting them without respecting their job contracts or clearing their due wages and other entitlements.

The extent of discussion that took place in the recent past on the challenges of attaining the Sustainable Development Goals or those of Global Compact for Migration in the context of Covid-19 does not match the level of discussion that is required on the inability of existing global standards in ensuring the protection of marginalised migrants in crisis situations.

The situation of migrants in destination countries during this crisis does warrant a major scrutiny of the rules of the game by all parties for redefining the norms and standards of globalisation.

Tasneem Siddiqui is Professor of Political Science, University of Dhaka, and founding Chair of Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU). The paper is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.


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