Transient Workers Count Too held a webinar on Thursday, 3 June 2021, titled ‘Hunger Games for real: The Bangladeshi worker abroad’. The video recording of the event (90 minutes) can be found below.

Our panellists touched on various aspects of labour migration, particularly as they affect Bangladeshi workers in Qatar, Malaysia and South Korea. While many problems appear to be common across countries, Singapore included, there are also differences, reflecting new ways of tackling the issues. It was useful to learn from what those other places have tried as solutions.

Our panellists for the evening were:

Since 2014, Ray Jureidini has been Professor of Migration Ethics and Human Rights, Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics, in the College of Islamic Ethics at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, Doha, Qatar. He taught Sociology in several universities in Australia; the American University of Beirut, 1999-2005; American University in Cairo, 2005-2011 became director of Center for Migration and Refugee Studies. His human and labour rights based scholarship and activism centers on forced labour, human trafficking, labour recruitment and migrant labour reform advocacy in the Middle East.

Prof. Jureidini was one of the authors of the Qatar Foundation’s 2013 Mandatory Standards for Migrant Worker Welfare and the author of a 2014 report, Migrant Labour Recruitment to Qatar for the Qatar Foundation. In 2016, he authored the International Labour Organization (ILO) White Paper, Ways Forward in Fair Recruitment of Low-skilled Migrant Workers in the Asia-Arab States Corridor; in 2017 the Wage Protection Systems and Programmes in the GCC, by the European University Institute; also in 2017 the Transnational Culture of Corruption in Migrant Labour Recruitment published by the International Organization for Migration.

In 2019, Dr Jureidini was the lead author of an ILO report, Assessment of the Wage Protection System in Qatar; and in 2020 co-edited a book with Said Hassan Migration and Islamic Ethics (Brill Publishers) with a chapter on kafala. The book is currently one of the top 5 books of the entire Brill catalogue.

Sumitha Shaanthinnni Kishna is an advocate and solicitor and the sole proprietor of Chambers of Sumitha. She holds an LLB (Hons) from University of East London and was called to the Malaysian Bar in 2005. She is a qualified mediator and on the mediators’ panel of the Bar Council Malaysian Mediation Centre.

She is the Director of Our Journey, an NGO platform for experts on migration issues, advocating a supportive migration system for non-citizens and one that incorporates international standards and norms. Our Journey’s advocacy is directed towards both government and private stakeholders.

She is the current Chairperson of Migrant Forum in Asia, a regional network of civil society organisations from 18 countries from Middle East and Asia advocating for the protection of migrant workers.

Sumitha serves in many national, regional and international groups, coalitions and networks focussed on the protection and rights of migrants, domestic workers, refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, trafficked persons, and foreign spouses as well as foreign nationals on death row.

Md Amdad Hossin Jewel (Korean name: 조이 Jo-Yi) was born in Bangladesh, arriving in South Korea as a migrant worker in 1998. The first place he worked was at a flower farm in Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do, with a subsequent job at a furniture factory for more than a decade.

Over the years, he came to know various Korean civic groups, such as the Joint Committee for Migrants in Korea (JCMK) and he joined the equal union of migrant workers under the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions.

Since 2017, Jewel has been working as a social worker at Namyangju Migrant Welfare Center in Maseok, Namyangju, an organisation that is a member of JCMK. In this role, he helps migrant workers solve wage problems, medical problems, and other issues.

Jewel has been a migrant worker since his early twenties. His first overseas job was in Singapore. He has also worked in Australia.

His own personal experience demonstrates that it is not easy to live as a migrant worker in a place where language and culture are different. Even at the same workplace, migrant and native workers are treated differently, with migrants discriminated against simply because they are foreigners. Moreover, when migrant workers have medical problems and wage problems , language barriers make it difficult to solve them on their own. Jewel finds it rewarding that he is able to help others who live as migrant workers in Korea.

Dr. C R Abrar is the Executive Director of Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU), the premier migration think tank in Bangladesh.

He was educated at the Universities of Dhaka and Sussex, UK and Griffith University, Australia. He taught International Relations at the University of Dhaka for four decades. His area of research includes Rohingya refugees, short-term labour migrants and citizenship status of the camp dwelling Urdu speaking community in Bangladesh.

He has published in national and international journals on recruitment industry, social protection and rights of Rohingya refugees.

Abrar was the immediate past Chair of the Internal Migration and Urbanization thematic group of Knowledge Network on Migration Development (KNOMAD).  He is a regular contributor to The Daily Star of Dhaka on migration and rights issues.

The event was supported by Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA), whose Regional Coordinator, William Gois, said a few words near the start of the webinar. TWC2 is a member of MFA.

Other TWC2 people involved:

The event was moderated by  Debbie Fordyce and Alex Au.

The translators were Shafiqul Islam and Billal Khan — who also assisted before the event by liaising frequently with Joyi in Korea — and Sharina Chowdhury.

The technical team comprised Ethan Guo, Eliza Thomas, Mohamed Alfiyan and David Kalimuthu.

Among the major themes touched on by panellists were recruitment cost, food security, wage theft, changing jobs (job mobility), and the particular vulnerabilities of workers caught up in the criminal justice system.

Starting from about 00:07:28, C R Abrar is asked for his views on recruitment cost and the difficulties in eliminating this burden on migrant workers. Ray Jureidini offers his take on the subject starting from around 00:55:36. On a brighter note, Joyi explains that when migrant workers get to change jobs in Korea, this is done through government-run job centres, and at 01:10:25, he says that no fees or kickbacks are demanded from workers.

The food issue comes up at two places. First, Ray Jureidini describes an ongoing research exercise into food security for migrant workers in Qatar, starting from 00:27:16. Then Joyi adds that food is among the biggest problems for Bangladeshi workers in Korea. He comes to this at about 00:50:38, and explains why.

A question about wage theft is put to Sumitha Kishna at 00:21:13 and she describes the many ways in which workers lose out on salary, as well as the difficulties in getting remedies.

The three panellists from destination countries take up the issue of changing jobs (what we sometimes refer to as job transfer) at various points in the webinar. Sumitha Kishna first describes how the policy of prohibiting migrant workers from changing jobs except with employer permission creates a straitjacket for workers subjected to abuse, and how this connects with the issue of workers sliding into undocumented status. This comes out as a follow-on comment from the question about undocumented workers, starting from 00:32:10.

Joyi explains, starting from 00:38:16, that in South Korea too, migrant workers are not permitted to change jobs unless the employer’s business has failed or there’s been unpaid wages. Should these circumstances arise, a worker is allowed to change jobs three times within a three-year period, but the government has a system for helping him find a new employer.

A little after 00:43:48, Ray Jureidini describes the major change in Qatari law last year allowing workers three months to find new jobs after they have resigned of their own accord. Implementation of the new law is still a work in progress, but in the space of less than a year, thousands have already benefitted from the new policy. See also an earlier article: Qatar abolishes its kafala system, when will Singapore do so?

On contract substitution (see Glossary), Sumitha Kishna (01:23:33) says there is case law in Malaysia against such a practice. Ray Jureidini describes Qatar’s and the UAE’s system where these two governments have established visa centres in sending countries, and contracts have to be authenticated at these visa centres before the worker leaves for Qatar/UAE. This way, it’s very difficult for employers to later insist on new contracts with inferior terms. He describes this a little after 01:17:23.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, the minimum wage law protects workers from having their wages slashed below the legal limit, but, as Joy explains a bit after 01:27:33, being paid the minimum wage is still far below what a Korean national might earn doing the same job.

Looking at longer-term trends in demography and economic performance, Debbie asks Abrar whether he sees a day when Bangladeshis might not need so much to be cheap labour abroad. The contextual background is that over the past decade, Bangladesh has enjoyed steady GDP growth of 6 – 8 percent per annum. Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s population growth is reaching a plateau, with total fertility rate slipping under 2.1 births per woman (the replacement rate for a population) since 2016.

Minimum wage

Currently, in Malaysia, the minimum wage is 1,200 Ringgit per month (S$386).

In Qatar, the minimum wage is 1,000 Qatari Rials per month (S$364). The law also provides for a minimum monthly housing allowance of 500 Rials (S$182) and a minimum food allowance of 300 Rials ($109) if the employer does not provide housing/food in kind.

In South Korea, the minimum wage is 8,720 South Korean Won (S$10.35) per hour, or 1,822,480 Won (S$2,163) per month.

Singapore does not have a minimum wage by law. The Progressive Wage Model that seeks to push up wages for some sectors such as cleaners only applies to citizens and permanent residents, thereby cementing in State policy a discriminatory framework.

Beginning from 00:46:49, Abrar explains that the issue is a multi-layered one. On the one hand there are indeed growing job opportunities in the country, on the other hand, Bangladeshi nationals are not getting the skills training to fill these jobs.

This has then created a paradox where foreigners, mainly Indians, come to Bangladesh to fill these jobs while Bangladeshis still have to look outward for work. He cites a statistic: Bangladesh is the fifth largest source of remittances to India.

During question time, one of the questions put to panellists was about migrant workers caught up in criminal justice systems.

At 01:15:46, Sumitha says criminal cases involving migrant workers are the most difficult because Malaysia does not have legal aid for foreign nationals. Even finding a bailor is difficult and a worker, even if innocent, can find himself sitting in remand for a long time waiting for trial.

At 01:12:25, Ray highlights the abuse of the criminal justice system by employers in their attempts to exercise control over their labour force. In particular, he cites the common practice of reporting a worker to the police as “missing” or “absconded” in order to undermine the worker’s immigration status as retribution for the worker standing up for his rights (e.g. filing salary claims). The attitude behind making such reports to the police smacks of slavery, he says.

Debbie remarks that this too happens often in Singapore.

The role of government

Although not posed as any single question, the role of government came up at various points in the webinar. Examples were cited of how being too cosy with employers can create a lot of unhappy rigidities and social problems, while better provision of direct services to migrants can prove helpful.

Sumitha mentions (00:34:05) how vesting too much power in employers (e.g. tying workers to a single employer) can lead to a problem of a shadow labour market, injustice and even undocumented workers.

On the other hand, Joyi describes (00:40:36 and then again at 01:08:34) how the South Korean government has job centres in various locations to help migrant workers change employers when certain conditions are met, and this kind of intervention by the government may account for the fact that employers do not demand kickbacks for offering migrant workers new jobs.

Ray explains (01:18:06) how Qatar’s visa centres set up in 18 cities of sending countries play a role in authenticating contracts, making it hard for unethical employers to engage in contract substitution later.

It is striking that Singapore seems to have chosen the worst of both worlds. We prefer to vest employers with huge powers, e.g. the power to unilaterally cancel work permits and repatriate workers. This reinforces the power imbalance between employers and migrant workers, thus creating much unhappiness and even outcomes that are inimical to the national interest (see our article: Short of foreign labour, Singapore sending workers home even when they want to stay and work). At the same time, our government is unwilling to provide a better range of direct services to migrants, leaving problems like contract substitution and corruption (kickbacks) unresolved.