When the Malaysian government expelled Bangladeshi migrant workers from the country in 1998 because it needed jobs for its own people, 32-year old Sheikh Rumana was one of them – after having worked under deplorable conditions in a garment factory for seven years. While female migrant workers are most vulnerable to exploitation, for Bangladeshi men, working abroad is a path to riches and a way out of the low wages offered at home.
According to the Bangladeshi Economic Review 2008, more than 5.5 million Bangladeshis work abroad sending billions of dollars home in remittances. Six percent of them, or 330,000, are women, says Sheikh Rumana, who became General Secretary of the Dhaka-based NGO Bangladeshi Obvibashi Mohila Sramik Association (BOMSA) – or Association of Female Migrant Workers of Bangladesh – that she helped establish when she returned home in 1998.
Besides Malaysia, many women workers go to Saudi Arabia, the United Arabic Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Jordan, or Qatar to either work in the garment industry or as household helpers; skilled laborers go to Kuwait, where they can work as medical assistants. But these are just a few of the 20 countries listed by the Bangladeshi Ministry of Expatriate's Welfare and Overseas Employment, which also include destinations as far as Great Britain, Italy, and Japan.