In recent days over 800 Bangladeshi workers have been deported by the Kuwaiti government for organising strikes and violent protests.
There are about 200,000 workers from Bangladesh in the Gulf countries, mostly employed in cleaning services, security guards or construction. Every year thousands of poor Bangladeshis pay a labour recruiting agent (dalal) to arrange temporary jobs in Kuwait and other wealthy countries. Many workers find the labour brokers have ripped them off as pay is much less than promised - and sometimes less than other workers doing the same job. Others find on arrival the agents have failed to provide any work and so leave them stranded at the airport. Accomodation is also inadequate and expensive so that the whole point of the migration - to save and send money to family back home - becomes impossible.
It is common for employers to demand the passports of workers at beginning of employment, under threat of lower wages if workers refuse. But this makes workers vulnerable as they risk deportation if police find them without documentation. (Unsurprisingly therefore, there are thousand of illegal migrant workers, often using false ID.) If workers make demands on the boss he can simply inform the police that the worker is dismissed and so no longer has any legal right to remain in the country; wages owed to workers are sometimes used to pay for the travel costs of their own deportation.
Amin Ahmed Chowdhury, a former Bangladesh ambassador to Oman, told bdnews24.com: "Brokers of employers and recruiting agents take workers' passports on arrival, saying they are necessary for making identity and medical cards."
"Their exploitation starts with the taking away of passports," said Amin, who pointed out the practice was illegal.
He added that the brokers of the recruiting agents often made workers sign new contracts in a foreign language for much lower wages than pledged in Bangladesh. (independent-bangladesh.com 7 Aug 08)
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Kuwaiti newspaper Arab Times in a report yesterday said one of the workers alleged that the company has not paid two months' wages to a number of workers, and is not giving them weekly holiday.
Some of them are even forced to work 16 hours a day without any payment for overtime work, he said.
Another worker said the manager of the company beat up some workers for no reasons, and deducts five dinars per day if any worker fails to turn up for work due to illness.
He alleged that the company is compelling them to buy plane tickets from a certain travel agency, which charges exorbitant fares, the Arab Times reported.
“We want the company to pay our wages through bank, besides paying us for overtime. Most of the workers are falling sick because of the long hours of work. The company is also not allowing us to take sick leave. How can we work under such an environment?” the worker posed a question. (Daily Star 22 July 08)
The trouble began in the last two weeks of July. Thousands of Bangladeshis and other South Asian migrants (from Nepal, India, probably Pakistan, etc.) employed as cleaners, rubbish collectors and stevedores/dockers went on strike over a long list of grievances; poor wages, poor working conditions, overtime without pay, lack of sick leave and time off, etc. The workers also claim that employers force workers to pay extra for health and accomodation — costs they say should be borne by the companies. Demonstrations at two sites where they're housed outside Kuwait City turned violent, with workers smashing windows, vandalising cars and clashing with camp officials, police and army - who moved in with tear gas and clubs. 800 Bangladeshi demonstrators were arrested on 28th July but clashes continued for several days.
"The army beat us mercilessly while breaking up the protest and also in detention camps," said Mohammad Ilyas, 28, who started work in Kuwait three years ago after selling everything he owned and borrowing from relatives to afford the agent fees. "Now I am a wretched person. My dream is over, he said." (Reuters, 1 Aug 08)
As the deportees arrive back in Bangladesh, evidence of beatings by Kuwaiti police and soldiers are plainly visible. While cracking down on the unfamiliar sight of public violent labour unrest by its normally invisible migrant labour force, the Kuwaiti state is obliged to recognise its dependency on exploiting cheap South Asian labour for its menial jobs. So it has conceded that it will abolish the dalal labour broking/pimping system and set a minimum wage at over double the present rates of pay.
The two exports; Ready Made Garments & Ready Made Workers
Bangladesh has also announced greater regulation of labour brokers' practices. Despite its complete disinterest in ever previously regulating or limiting workers' exploitation by local recruiting agents, the Bangladeshi state is now also anxious to resolve the labour unrest and repair the damaged reputation of their migrant workforce; over 5 million Bangladeshis work abroad, mostly in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, sending home around $8 billion a year and providing a vital foreign exchange injection to Bangladesh's economy. This is almost as much as the $9 billion the country's other main export - ready made garments - brings into the country.
Keeping the home fires burning
The migrants return to the ongoing struggles at home. Despite the continued State of Emergency in Bangladesh, a report published this week describes the growth in unrest among garment industry workers over the first six months of 2008. There were 72 incidents of labour unrest related to unpaid wages, lay-offs and holiday time disputes; and in 13 cases, workers took to streets to protest at the killing or torture of fellow workers. At least 988 workers were injured in clashes with police; 45 workers were arrested, over 10,000 were fined and at least 78 sacked over participation in demonstrations. The incidents have been spread over all the main ready made garment centers.
The protests and strikes followed a familiar pattern; an incident in one factory sparks a walkout, then those workers march to other factories and bring out many other workers. Demonstrations often become roadblocks; police actions can often result in rioting, fierce large-scale clashes with cops and sometimes attacks on bosses' property. All this is in the context of some of the lowest wages in the world, ever-higher food and fuel prices and employers often refusing to implement previously agreed improvements in pay and working conditions. Food prices have doubled in Bangladesh since September 2006, while wages have remained largely static.
The high level of struggle of the Bangladeshi working class continues and now spreads across borders.