Migrant Workers Face Trafficking, Exploitation in Bangladesh


Article Highlights

DHAKA, BANGLADESH – Nurunnabi Bhuiyaan is slim and pale. He hails from the Anand Nagar village of Fulgazi Upazila just outside Bangladesh’s capital city, Dhaka. He is from a poor family and wanted to work overseas in order to earn better wages which he could send home.

In 2009, he collected 37,400 taka, $534 USD, from family and friends to cover the cost of paying an employment agency to find him work in Libya.

On June 3, 2009, Bhuiyaan turned over his money to Kawser Ahmed Topu of Flower Trade International, FTI, a local company that places workers in overseas job appointments. Topu introduced himself as the director of the company, took the money and requested an additional 20,000 taka, $285 USD, from Bhuiyaan to pay for a work visa.

Bhuiyaan says Topu assured him he would be sent to Libya for work in a matter of weeks. But months later, he was still waiting. Today, he is still fighting to get his money back.

Every year, Bangladesh sends millions of skilled and unskilled migrant workers to Europe, Africa and the United Arab Emirates. Officials acknowledge that migrant workers are often cheated and exploited by the recruiting agencies and sometimes by their overseas employers, but Bangladesh lacks proper legislation to criminalize those who traffic and defraud people in search of work overseas.

Bhuiyaan has filed a complaint with the Inspector General of Police at the Gulshan Police Station in Dhaka on behalf of himself and 16 other men who say Topu defrauded them. The case is still being investigated.

According to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training, BMET, more than 83,000 Bangladeshis legally migrated to Libya to work between 1976 and 2009. Dr. Nurul Islam, the director of migration, says that accounts for just one percent of overseas employment as millions in Bangladesh are forced to seek work abroad to make ends meet at home.

Md Sohel, who also gave money to Topu at FTI in exchange for a work appointment, found the experience even more trying. Sohel says Topu told him and a group of friends that they too would be sent to Libya. Sohel says he was told that the visa process from Bangladesh was getting more difficult, so Topu sent the group of men to Nepal, where he said it would be easier for them to acquire a work visa for Libya. In total, 85 Bangladeshis crossed the border into Nepal with no money and no instructions on the next step in the process.

“We were in Nepal like slaves with very limited access to food and poor accommodations,” Sohel says. “We were very confused [about] what was going on and also scared as we invested all of our assets and money for this purpose.”

From Nepal, Sohel and the group were sent to Lucknow in the state of Utar Pradesh in India. “I called my Allah all day long and hoped the nightmare would end soon,” Sohel says.

In Lucknow, Sohel says they were told by the recruiting agency that they would fly to Libya. After five days in Lucknow, the group was introduced to the local director of the recruiting agency, a man known only as Mr. Masud. Masud was later arrested at the Lucknow Airport with 45 fake Nepali and Bangladeshi passports. After the arrest, the group was transported back to Dhaka on November 26, 2009, nearly five months after their ordeal began.

Binoy Krishna Mallik is the executive director of Rights Jessore, a local human rights organization dedicated to the prevention of human trafficking. He is also the father of Sabuj Mallik, a young man who gave money to Topu in order to work overseas. When Mallik’s son was sent to Nepal to await transport to Libya, Mallik began investigating the company. Soon, Bhuiyaan and several other men who had been swindled by FTI contacted Rights Jessore.

Mallik held a press conference in Dhaka where he discussed the case of the 85 Bangladeshis who had given money to FTI and were, in many cases, trafficked across borders. Mallik revealed that FTI, registered under government license number R/L 195, had taken more than 20 million taka, $285,631 USD, from Bangladeshi citizens under the guise of giving them work in Libya. After many of the 85 people began to demand their money back, the office closed its doors.

In July, shortly after Mallik’s press conference, police arrested Topu, but the rest of the staff fled and have not been caught. Bhuiyaan pressed charges against Topu who is currently facing charges of forgery for the purpose of cheating, using forged documents, cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property, criminal breech of trust and criminal intimidation under the Penal Code of Bangladesh. Bhuiyaan filed his case on behalf of 17 people who had given money to Topu. He has also submitted an application to the Inspector General of the Police in an attempt to recover their money.

According to the 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report, what happened to Bhuiyaan and the other 84 men is not uncommon. The report revealed that “a significant share of Bangladesh’s trafficking victims are men recruited for work overseas with fraudulent employment offers who are subsequently exploited under conditions of forced labor or debt bondage.”

This report ranked Bangladesh on a Tier 2 Watch-List as a high-risk country. “During the year, the government did not demonstrate measures to reduce the demand for forced labor or for commercial sex acts,” the report concluded. The International Labor Organization estimates that for every 10 victims of trafficking that are known about, another nine people are suffering from the same situation.

The Search for Justice Continues
For Bhuiyaan and the other men defrauded by FTI, frustrations remain.

Little evidence has been found against the organization. According to the Bangladesh Association for International Recruiting Agencies — one of the entities investigating the claims against Flower Trade International — the company’s reported address does not match their business address on file. The group also closed their offices in Gulshan and Uttara without proper notification.

The Press Institute attempted to contact the agency and all known associates, but discovered that all cell phone numbers previously given to the victims have been disconnected and land lines went unanswered. The group’s former office in Gulshan remains closed and the office in Uttara has a new sign for another company out front.

While contact has remained limited with the perpetrators, legal experts say that is only the beginning of the problem, since Bangladesh lacks the comprehensive legal framework to deal with labor exploitation complicated by migration issues. The Penal Code, Passport Act and Emigration Ordinances are not equipped to prevent these crimes. One local attorney, who asked not to be named because of his involvement with the case, says the likelihood of criminal action in this case is minimal. “The best the victims can hope for is a civil suit to recoup some of their money,” he says.

In Bangladesh, BMET, which regulates migration and related issues, does have a mechanism in place for people to lodge complaints, but political pressure and corruption often prolong the process. Because of this, many chose to take their complaints directly to local police.

Mallik of Rights Jessore, encourages people to report cases of fraud and trafficking through their hotline service, as Bhuiyaan did last year. Mallik says when they received Bhuiyaan’s complaint, they took the matter very seriously. After detailed fact-finding and a lengthy conversation with Bhuiyaan, Mallik drafted a letter and sent it to the Ministry of Home Affairs, BMET and police headquarters. Mallik alleges that BMET did not take the matter seriously, but says he was pleased by the prompt action from the special branch of police.

But Shahudul Haque, the director general of BMET, says they have taken the case seriously and have formed a committee to investigate. Haque says the investigation of FTI is complicated because the original owner of the agency died a few years ago and a petition was filed to change ownership of the agency last year, however the request was still pending when Topu was arrested. Despite the fact that the business license was canceled, members of the group are still operating. Online posts from representatives of FTI can be found as recently as August 17, on a Haitian job-posting site.

Shah Alam, assistant inspector general of police, says the Bangladesh Police are determined to stop this kind of fraudulent practice. The special branch of police are working on the case so that the investigation will move quickly.  He says the department has installed SMS and online complaint capabilities on their official website to encourage more people to come forward. He added that a media wing is also actively scanning local advertisements to make sure all companies advertising job services are legal.

But Alam admits that his resources are limited. “The recent labor exploitation and trafficking are part of organized crimes and [are] difficult to solve without availability of appropriate enforceable instruments,” he says.

Bhuiyaan says he is still pursuing his case against Topu and after nearly a year of waiting, he hopes the case will soon be heard in court.  

Sabuj Mallik, who also gave money to Topu, says they hope to force change. “We united together so we will be stronger to fight against the powerful people,” he says. “In our group, almost all the people lost all their money and property and have nothing in hand to survive.”