Migrant Workers From Bangladesh Send $15 Billion Home In Remittances, But At What Cost? : Goats and Soda Bangladeshis who want to work abroad can pay thousands of dollars for a permit. The reward is a chance for a job that allows them to send cash back home. But there's a potential for abuse as well.

They Pump $15 Billion A Year Into Bangladesh's Economy — But At What Cost?

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We have a story of migrant workers next. They leave their homes in low or middle-income countries. They head for more prosperous places that need labor. And they send money to their families at home. Last year alone, such workers sent home a record half a trillion dollars. Those remittances, as they're called, boost the economies of many countries, but they come at a personal cost for the people who travel to earn the money.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Outside a two-story office building in Dhaka, young men are waiting around on a dusty street. They're all hoping to get jobs in the Arabian Gulf. But before they can get labor contracts, they have to come here to a Saudi-run office to get fingerprinted, medical exams and have their travel documents scanned into an online database. Mohammad Kiron Mia is trying to get a job in Oman.

MOHAMMAD KIRON MIA: (Through interpreter) I want to make a better life for my family and my children. I can make twice as much money working abroad compared to working here in Bangladesh.

BEAUBIEN: If he's successful, this will be his third stint working abroad. His first trip was for seven months working as a tailor. The second contract was for three years as a gardener in Oman.

MIA: (Through interpreter) It's not possible to have a great life from this job. But my food and accommodation are paid for while I'm there, so I can manage to do OK with this income.

BEAUBIEN: The office he's in front of is one of 46 across Bangladesh that process workers exclusively for the Gulf countries. Other labor brokers and other offices set up jobs in Malaysia, Singapore, India and other parts of Asia. An estimated 10 million Bangladeshis are currently working abroad. Dilip Ratha, an economist at the World Bank who specializes in migration, says remittances are a very powerful force for development in Bangladesh.

DILIP RATHA: The beauty of remittances is that it is one person sending a small amount of money to the family back home.

BEAUBIEN: And unlike revenue from exports of industrial products or natural resources, the cash from remittances ends up in the hands of lots of Bangladeshis all across the country.

RATHA: It is customized in terms of timing and amount to the people and people's needs back home. If Nepal has a disaster, Bangladesh has a cyclone, remittances will rush in because that's the first form of help that arrives when the family back home is in trouble.

BEAUBIEN: Shariful Islam Hasan is the head of the migration program for BRAC, Bangladesh's largest non-profit development and social service agency.

SHARIFUL ISLAM HASAN: Bangladesh is one of the top 10 countries in the world for migration and remittances according to World Bank.

BEAUBIEN: Hasan acknowledges that remittances are hugely important to Bangladesh, but he says there aren't many protections for these workers.

HASAN: If you don't get a holiday, if you don't have your food or what you need - so a person who has to work 24/7, according to the definition of modern day slavery, it's one kind of slavery.

BEAUBIEN: Some of the workers are overcharged for visas, flights, work permits; others end up being forced to toil 18 hours a day or on dangerous construction sites, he says. Hasan says women, who primarily find positions as maids and house cleaners, are often subjected to physical, emotional and even sexual abuse.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Shouting in foreign language).

BEAUBIEN: In a crowded part of the capital known as Old Dhaka, Mim Akter Tania shares an apartment with her husband, her daughter and another young, married couple. When Tania signed a two-year contract last year to work as a custodian at a hospital in Saudi Arabia, she was incredibly excited.

MIM AKTER TANIA: (Through interpreter) At the time, we didn't have much money. So I thought that going to Saudi Arabia might give us a better chance to live a good life.

BEAUBIEN: She hoped that she could move up from mopping floors at the hospital to work as a nurse's assistant or a medical technician. But when she got to Riyadh, there was no job in a hospital. Instead, she was sent to work as a domestic servant for a salary that was supposed to be $160 a month. Tania says, after working all day at her boss' house, he'd send her in the evening to clean his brother's.

TANIA: (Through interpreter) I knew I had to do the work, but my employer was not a good human being. He often beat me and behaved very rudely towards me.

BEAUBIEN: She says her boss and his brother even tried to rape her. That's when she ran away and went to the Saudi police, but the police just brought her back to her employer's house. Then one day, Tania's boss pushed her off a balcony, she says, breaking her leg. From the hospital, she got in touch with the Bangladesh embassy, which sent her to a safe house. She says it was full of other Bangladeshi women who'd also fled their employers and were waiting to go home. All of this happened in just two months.

TANIA: (Through interpreter) I never got any payment for the work I did there - none.

BEAUBIEN: Hasan from BRAC's migration program and other worker advocates say that Tania's experience is far too common. Bangladesh has come to rely so heavily on the money workers send home that mistreatment and abuse are often overlooked. Last year, remittances topped $15 billion, which - to put this in perspective - is half of the $30 billion Bangladesh brought in from its largest industry - textiles.

At times, even underaged teenagers get pulled illegally into the foreign worker system. At the Kurmitola General Hospital, the Begum family is gathered on a row of hard blue plastic benches in the ground floor waiting room. Their daughter, who they say is 16, is huddled next to her mother. The girl, who we're not naming, is wearing a black burka with no head covering over a filthy hooded sweatshirt. There are bruises on her left cheek and a cut at the base of her neck. A small duffel bag with an airline-checked luggage tag still wrapped around the handle sits at her feet. She refuses to speak.

Her mother, Minara, says she and her husband hadn't heard from their daughter in five months. They thought she was working in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, then suddenly, she called from Saudi Arabia saying she's coming home.

MINARA: (Foreign language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: Minara says it all started with a woman named Beauty. Beauty came to their village and offered to get the girl a job cleaning houses in Dhaka. They hadn't heard from their daughter, but every month, Beauty sent them 16,000 taka - almost $200. Minara says her daughter was 15 when she left with Beauty. Now, just a few months later, the girl is holding a passport that lists her age as 26.

Minara and her husband brought the teenager straight to this hospital from the airport, but she won't let the doctors or nurses touch her.

MINARA: (Foreign language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: All her daughter will tell them, Minara says, is that she wants to go home. Even up until last month, however, she notes that their daughter's wages had been arriving every month like clockwork.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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