Like many countries in South Asia, migration policies and practices in Bangladesh have been slow to recognise women as significant agents of development. As dominant cultural, social, and religious values reinforce the existing gender differences across public-private spheres, migrant women face multiple levels of discrimination.
However, over the last 10 years, internal and international migration flows have increased significantly in Bangladesh. Rapid urban industrialisation and democratic reform have led to the transformation of major employment sectors in Dhaka and Chittagong. To meet this demand for labour, women have been moving to work in the RMG sector and for domestic work.
It is estimated that more than 3 million female workers are employed in these sectors, with 80% of these workers from the northern rural areas of Bangladesh. These remittances are widely contributing to the national development of Bangladesh. As just one example: Around 10% of total GDP comes from the RMG sector.
The restructuring of the global economy has also created space for Bangladeshi female migrant workers to take part in overseas employment which, in another sense, is a way out from the long-established barriers and the absence of freedom to move. The lifted ban on female migration from Bangladesh in 2013 saw an increase in the number of women migrating to the gulf and other Arab countries.
In 2014, a total of 76,007 female workers went abroad for work, which is almost 18% of total overseas employment. A cursory look at the BMET data also shows that from 1991 to December 2014, a total of 352,269 female workers went overseas for employment.
These women, who take the decision to migrate for work, want to better the economic and social conditions of their households. Their income is needed by their families for basic needs, developing businesses and property, and sending their children to school. In fact, remittances sent by women are on an upward trend, with a high portion of their income sent as remittance.
Yet there are many issues regarding the exploitation of female migrants from Bangladesh. Of pressing concern is the harsh work conditions they are forced to endure; this includes withholding salaries, restrictions to their freedom of movement, denial of holidays, as well as verbal and physical abuse.
Although the women undertake similar hours of work to migrant men, there are also huge disparities in their wages and related benefits. It is found that Bangladeshi domestic workers employed in the Gulf are most vulnerable to long working hours of up to 15 to 18 hours a day. Whilst on average, a Bangladeshi woman migrant worker sends only Tk7,018.90, 20% less than their contract wage, and 70% less than the male migrants from Bangladesh.
Even when the women return home to their local communities, it is difficult to support them due to social stigma in society. Undesired and rejected, their new skills and work experience are much forgotten. This makes it increasingly difficult for the women to re-integrate and use their remittances to best support their families.
To avoid jeopardising the development potential of Bangladesh, and protect and support the human rights of all women, migrant policies need to be gender-responsive in both sending and receiving countries. Thus, the following recommendations must be taken with the utmost urgency.
Firstly, as remittances have the potential to transform the structure of the home, there needs to be gender disaggregation of remittance data.
Currently, this is not a requirement for the information system of Bangladesh Bank, which is a concern across both the public and private sector. However, an easy record of the sex of the remitter will ensure remittances can have wide benefits to the overall economy. Secondly, when women decide to migrate across borders, they should be able to easily access support in their new countries of residence. This would involve gender-specific support services outside their private agencies or employer to assist with filing problems, complaints, and services for domestic workers who choose or need to leave their employers.
For the development of Bangladesh, significant reforms also need to be made to the monitoring and regulation of the informal sector of labour in Bangladesh. Moreover, to further protect the rights of these workers, no matter the age and sector of work, all women should receive a day off, as well as better regulation of wages, work hours, remittances, and contract signing. Of high priority are transformations to the nature of domestic work, which are often regulated in the private home.
Lastly, there needs to be a national and international dialogue on gender and migration for widespread changes to the lives of migrant women -- the times of ignoring women in migration must come to an end. However, an upcoming international conference on gendered dimension of migration in Singapore (June 30 to July 2), will provide invaluable insights to experiences of migration for women in the Global South.
RMMRU, alongside Migrating out of Poverty RPC partners, some of the most prestigious research-based experts in migration, will be attending to demonstrate new understandings and important directions for a sustainable, vibrant, safe, and gender-friendly migration governance.
Bangladeshi women, at home and abroad, are fighting at every frontier for equal rights to work. In the face of abuse, exploitation, and social stigma, even in their own homes, their journeys are complex.
Bangladesh must join the global community for a solution that upholds the rights and dignity of the female workers. Empowering women in migration is a vital factor for development, so that they can be active decision-makers and agents in society.