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October 2012, Volume 19, Number 4

South Asia, Middle East

Bangladesh. Bangladesh hopes to resume the large-scale deployment of workers to Malaysia under a government-to-government agreement that would limit the cost to 40,000 ($490) to 50,000 taka ($610) or less. However, the 1,200-member Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (BAIRA) has protested the G-to-G plan, saying that BAIRA members are the authorized agents to send Bangladeshi workers abroad. Most BAIRA recruiters charge each migrant $1,500 to $2,500 for a contract, health checks and visa costs, and travel to the foreign job.

There have been problems with Bangladeshi migrants sent by BAIRA agents to Malaysia, including workers who went with fake visas that were detected upon arrival and contracts that proved to be invalid. In 2007, after groups of migrants were not met at the airport, the Malaysian government halted the recruitment of Bangladeshis. In 2009, when over 60 percent of the 500,000 Bangladeshis were unauthorized, Malaysia again stopped further recruitment of Bangladeshis. In 2011, the Malaysian government allowed 267,000 of the unauthorized Bangladeshis to legalize their status.

Migrants who are tricked by recruitment agencies can seek compensation when they return to Bangladesh. However, the government normally requires recruiting agencies to repay only the maximum lawful recruitment fee of 84,000 taka (20,000 taka for women going abroad as domestic helpers), even though many migrants report paying far more. The government said that migrants should not pay more than these government-fixed maximum amounts, but many migrants believe that they must pay what is demanded to obtain foreign contracts.

Some 3.5 million workers, 80 percent women, are employed in the 5,000 factories that comprise Bangladesh's ready-made garment (RMG) industry. RMG exports worth $18 billion a year account for 80 percent of Bangladeshi manufacturing exports. There is still worker unrest because the cost of living has been rising faster than the minimum wage.

The government set a minimum wage of 1,662 taka in 2006 and raised it to 3,000 taka ($37) a month in November 2010. Some US retailers believe that the government must index the minimum wage to inflation so that workers are not forced to strike in order to win raises between minimum wage hikes.

In 2007, the AFL-CIO filed a complaint alleging serious violations of labor union rights in Bangladesh, a charge that DOL was still investigating in 2012. DOL testified in July 2012 that the US government has serious concerns about worker rights in garment factories and shrimp processing, where unpaid overtime and failure to pay the minimum wage are reportedly common. Retired military and police officers who provide security in export-oriented factories often maintain blacklists of troublemakers, including workers who have been fired for requesting wage increases.

India. India's Emigration Act of 1983 requires low-skilled workers to undergo an Emigration Check Required procedure before leaving for 17 countries. In 2011, there were 225 complaints filed against Indian recruiters for misleading and deceiving low-skilled Indians going abroad, up from 166 in 2010.

Recruiting agents must post bonds that are used to cover damages incurred by the workers they send abroad.

Many migrants from poorer Indian states in the north and northeast migrate to richer southern and western states, as from Assam to Bangalore, India's Silicon Valley. In August 2012, some of the 250,000 migrants from Assam, the largest state in northeastern India, who were elsewhere in India began returning after fighting between indigenous Bodo tribes and Muslim settlers displaced 400,000 people.

India's seven northeastern states have been plagued by insurgencies and rivalries as different groups compete for power. The fighting in Assam involves Bodos, who hold land in common and assert that Bangladeshis are moving into the state and taking their land. Since 2003, non-Bodo may not own land in designated areas; a July 2012 conflict over land began the unrest.

Farmers in India's breadbasket, the Punjab, are reportedly buying labor-saving machinery as fewer workers migrate from poorer states such as Bihar, the poorest Indian state with 80 million residents.

India has almost 190 million children enrolled in elementary schools. Over 70 percent go to 800,000 publicly financed schools, where teachers are often absent, rote learning is the norm, and infrastructure is poor. Public schools offer a free mid-day meal, so some parents send their children to private school for a few hours in the morning and then to public school in time for the free lunch.

Wealthier parents send their children to one of the 500,000 private schools. The 2009 Right to Education Act requires private schools to ensure that 25 percent of pupils aged six to 14 are from families earning less than 100,000 rupees ($1,800) a year. The Supreme Court upheld the quota for private schools in 2012, raising questions about implementation, including who will pay the high fees charged by private schools for the poor children who must be admitted.

India has 26,500 institutions of higher education, more than any other country, and enrolls 15 million students. However, the quality of private colleges and universities is often poor, and the degrees they issue are not valued by employers. India graduates 500,000 engineers a year, but one study found that only three percent were ready for immediate employment.

Indian states often reserve admissions for limited public university slots to children of public employees and others connected to the government. But the state of Tamil Nadu reserves almost 70 percent of university admissions for "backward castes" as determined by a 1931 caste survey. Paradoxically, this has resulted in the admission of the children of well-connected parents rather than poorer children with better grades. The well-connected get themselves classified as "backward" to gain admission for their children and sustain a system that would otherwise shrink with urbanization and economic growth. India's Parliament appears more likely to expand rather than to shrink caste preferences.

Nepal. The government in August 2012 announced that women under 30 would no longer be able to work legally in the Gulf states. The government says that 58,000 Nepalese women are employed in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf states, while activists say 200,000 Nepali migrants are in the region, including women who travel via the open India-Nepal border.

Some 2.5 million Nepalese work abroad, and remittances are a fifth of Nepal's GDP. Unemployment in Nepal is over 30 percent, prompting many Nepalese to seek work abroad.

Sri Lanka. The Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) has begun to blacklist foreign recruiters who violate its laws, instructing licensed Sri Lankan recruiters not to deal with over 600 foreign agents, a quarter in Saudi Arabia. The SLBFE is registering the estimated 10,000 sub-agents in Sri Lanka who travel from village to village and recruit workers to fill foreign jobs. About half of the Sri Lankans going abroad are women who work as domestic helpers.

In September 2012, the SLBFE opened an orientation center for female domestic workers going abroad. Those going to Middle Eastern countries receive 15 days of pre-departure training, and those going elsewhere receive 25 days.

GCC. The ILO in August 2012 called on Gulf Cooperation Council governments to ratify and enforce ILO Convention 189, which lays out protections for the estimated 100 million domestic workers worldwide. There are believed to be between six and seven million domestic workers in GCC and other Arab countries, and they are mostly not covered by national labor laws.

Bahrain. Bahrain is the Gulf country that is most associated with reforms of the migrant labor system. There are about 460,000 migrant workers in Bahrain, and they are about three-fourths of the country's workers.

The Bahrain government, which has discussed ending the kafala or sponsorship system and allowing migrant workers to form unions, has effectively banned mid-day work in construction during the summer months, but Human Rights Watch in a September 2012 report concluded that the government has not stopped employer practices such as employers deducting recruitment fees from worker wages and withholding their passports.

Bahrain's Labor Market Regulatory Authority was created in 2006 to streamline work visa applications and provide education about migrant rights. Workers can file grievances, often over unpaid wages, that are mediated by the LMRA, but some employers do not show up for mediation or do not pay as promised. Some employers routinely accuse workers who file grievances of theft or another crime that subject the worker to deportation.

HRW acknowledged that many violations of migrant rights occur in sending countries, where migrants often pay a year's wages in fees to obtain a three-year contract to work in Bahrain.

Saudi Arabia. Men and women are segregated at work, prompting calls for five women-only industrial zones that would allow Saudi women to work for wages. About 15 percent of Saudi women work, mostly in female-only environments.

There are plans for five women-only cities, beginning with Hofuf in the Eastern Province that is to open in 2013 with 5,000 jobs for women in textiles, pharmaceuticals and food processing. However, some skeptics asked whether firms would be willing to hire Saudi women without experience if cheaper migrants are available.

Of the 723,277 foreign students enrolled in US universities during the 2010-2011 school year, 66,000 were Saudis, more than four times the number in 2000-01. A total of 130,000 Saudis were studying outside Saudi Arabia in 2010-11.

Qatar-UAE. Migrant activists are targeting the country selected to host the 2022 World Cup for not allowing migrants, who are 94 percent of private-sector workers, to unionize. The Qatar government is spending billions to upgrade its infrastructure ahead of the World Cup.

Abu Dhabi's Tourism Development and Investment Company, which is developing Saadiyat (Happiness) Island to house, for instance, branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim Museums and a New York University campus, has come under similar international pressure to respect the rights of migrants who will do most of the construction.

When the project was announced in 2009, an Employment Practices Policy was developed to protect migrant workers. PricewaterhouseCoopers released a survey of over 1,300 workers in September 2012 that found over three-fourths of migrant workers employed on the project had paid recruitment fees and travel costs, which the EPP says are to be paid by employers. Half of the workers interviewed did not live at the model Saadiyat Construction Village meant for them, but almost all were in possession of their passports.

Developers in Dubai, home to the world's largest building, the Burj Dubai, plan a replica of the Taj Mahal to be known as Taj Arabia and feature a 300-room hotel, stores, and replicas of the Pyramids of Egypt, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Most of the workers who will build what the developers call a New City of Love are from south Asian countries such as India.

Jordan. The 280,000 foreign migrants in Jordan are 20 percent of the work force. There are believed to be another 200,000 unauthorized migrants in the country, two-thirds of whom are Egyptian. Migrants complain that laws aimed at protecting them in fact open them to cheating by local employers. For example, some employers charge migrants for required clearances that certify the worker has received all the wages due him or her.

Many Egyptians employed in Jordanian agriculture report paying JD 500 to JD 1,000 for jobs that pay JD 200 a month.

Israel. The Israeli government is aiming to deter and remove so-called infiltrators, about 65,000 Africans who traveled through Egypt's Sinai desert to reach Israel. A fence on Israel's border with Egypt in the Sinai desert was completed in summer 2012, and new arrivals are detained in facilities that can hold 20,000 people.

A June 2012 poll found that 75 percent of Israelis support "expelling African infiltrators." Almost 90 percent are from Sudan and Eritrea, whose citizens receive temporary group protection in Israel but not work permits. Those from South Sudan began to be returned there in summer 2012.

Israel signed the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocols in 2009 and created a Refugee Status Determination unit. Since then, some 8,000 of the 65,000 applications have been dealt with, and 16 foreigners or 0.02 percent received asylum, which some call the lowest acceptance rate in the world. (The interior minister acts on recommendations of asylum-claims officers.) Every year, Canada and the United States grant asylum to 40 to 50 percent of foreigners requesting it.