Forced labour at home and abroad, forced marriage, and human trafficking are the most common forms of modern slavery in Bangladesh, say experts
Minu Begum went to Saudi Arabia from Kalkini upazila, Madaripur in 2018. She was promised Tk20,000 per month in return for household services.
However, Minu ended up getting way more than she had bargained for. Along with excessive work, her job description also included torture and sexual abuse.
After surviving the ordeal for three months, she returned to Bangladesh without a single penny.
But Minu is not a lone example of such treatment of female Bangladeshi workers abroad.
According to the Brac Migration Programme, around 13,000 women returned from Saudi Arabia in the last four years. Many of them reported being abused and not being paid for their work.
Among the returnees, 152 female workers died and 66 of them committed suicide. This year alone, dead bodies of 53 female workers were sent back to Bangladesh.
Shariful Hasan, head of Brac Migration Programme, said, "No one has information on how many Bangladeshi workers are suffering like Minu in Saudi Arabia. Neither our embassy, nor the government has any data on this."
The total number of Bangladeshis employed abroad since 1976 stood at 12.50 crore, according to the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training. Of them, around 31 percent were employed in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Around 11 lakh Bangladeshis are currently living in Saudi Arabia, according to unofficial estimates. There are about 700,000 Bangladeshi female workers in the Middle East.
Between 1991 and July 2019, 322,444 female workers went to Saudi Arabia – most as housekeepers.
A five-member delegation of the Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment Ministry recently visited Saudi Arabia to join the joint technical committee (JTC) meeting between both countries.
Zahid Hossain, joint secretary of the ministry, said, "The government is trying to solve the problems our migrant workers face in Saudi Arabia. We met with the Saudi authorities. We will announce a detailed feedback of the visit on Monday."
However, modern slavery is not happening to Bangladeshi labourers abroad only.
Modern slavery at home
According to the United Nations, modern slavery is an umbrella term covering practices such as forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage and human trafficking.
"Forced labour at home and abroad, forced marriage, and human trafficking are most common forms of modern slavery in Bangladesh," said Dr Syeda Rozana Rashid, professor of International Relations at Dhaka University.
Children are being forced into labour in various local industries, she said, adding "We know about some dry fish factories which hire children as labourers."
According to data by the Bangladesh Police, the number of human trafficking cases recorded was 1,028 in 2015, 677 in 2016, 778 in 2017 and 561 in 2018.
"Many youths who dreamed of going abroad in search of a better life, ended up being trafficked by middlemen," said Nasir Uddin, special superintendent of CID's trafficking and human behaviour unit.
Brac Migration Programme head Shariful Hasan blamed a lack of implementation of the law, low prosecution rates, poor referral mechanism to support victims of trafficking, dependency of labour migrants on middlemen, absence of an anti-trafficking tribunal, lack of mass awareness, and skill development for potential migrants as the main challenges against human trafficking.
According to Unicef, Bangladesh has the fourth highest rate of child marriage. Unicef further states that between 2005 and 2013, 29 percent of girls married before the age of 15, while 65 percent married before 18 years of age.
"Child marriage is a type of forced marriage because the girls cannot decide for themselves," said Dr Nehal Karim, professor of Social Science at Dhaka University.
Another form of modern slavery in Bangladesh is debt bondage.
According to the UN Supplementary Convention, debt bondage is a practice similar to slavery because it involves a debt that cannot be paid off within a reasonable span of time.
Bonded labour is defined as someone being forced to pay off a loan by working for an agreed-upon or unclear period of time for little or no salary.
''In different districts of Bangladesh, we have been informed of fishermen working under debt bondage. However, we did not receive any written allegations from fishermen,'' said Dr Rezaul Haque, additional secretary of the Ministry of Labour.
According to the International Labour Organization, over 40 million people worldwide are victims of modern slavery.
Furthermore, over 150 million children are subject to child labour, accounting for almost one in ten children around the world.