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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 September, 2004, 15:16 GMT 16:16 UK
Agencies 'exploit' South Asian workers

By Alastair Lawson
BBC News Online South Asia desk

The cash sent home by South Asian migrant workers - many hired by recruitment agencies for employment in the Middle East and Europe - has in some cases overtaken aid as the principal source of income for countries of the region.

Jacob Mondal, 29, an Indian who worked in Iraq
India is investigating the role of recruitment agencies

But the gruesome murders of 12 Nepalese hostages in Iraq have raised questions about the role and the honesty of the agencies concerned.

The family of 19-year-old Ramesh Khadka - one of those murdered - complained that the recruitment agency that sent him to Iraq deceived him into going there and refused to answer questions when news of his kidnap first emerged.

"I went to the recruitment agent's office so many times, but I have not been able to meet any of their officials," Mr Khadka's brother, Sudarshan, told the BBC.

"He was supposed to go to Jordan to work, we had no idea that he would eventually end up in Iraq."

I was treated like a slave by the family who hired me and ended up being beaten and threatened with rape
Shimoli, Bangladeshi housemaid

Similar stories of recruitment agencies taking advantage of poverty-stricken workers desperate to find employment abroad are to be found all over South Asia.

When 19-year-old Bangladeshi housemaid Shimoli boarded a train three years ago to go to the Gulf via India, she believed she was travelling to a better life.

'Nightmare' experience

She had been offered a job in the Gulf via a Dhaka based-recruitment agency.

But sadly it was all to go disastrously wrong.

Bangladeshi migrant workers
Bangladeshi migrant workers queue for Saudi visas in Dhaka

"My whole experience in Kuwait was a nightmare," she said.

"I was treated like a slave by the family who hired me and ended up being beaten and threatened with rape.

All over South Asia, recruitment agencies encourage people to head abroad for a new life.

The British Department for International Development estimates there are between six and seven million South Asians working abroad sending home billions of dollars a year.

There are no accurate figures for the number working in Iraq, but it is thought to be several thousand.

But aid agencies are increasingly concerned over the conditions in which the migrants are made to work and the role of the recruitment agencies in sending them abroad.

'Living slaves'

Peter O'Neill is a Roman Catholic vicar who works with migrant labourers in South and South-East Asia.

"Most people sent by recruitment agencies are working in what we call the three D areas - difficult, dirty and dangerous - and these are areas where locals refuse to work because they are so dangerous.

"So they are treated like living slaves."

Women in South Asia
Many use recruitment agencies to escape poverty

Some recruitment agencies in the region have been accused of receiving money from economic migrants before sending them abroad to jobs that do not exist.

India, like Nepal, has banned its workers from going to Iraq, yet it is generally accepted that there are thousands of people from both countries working there.

In July, Delhi ordered an investigation into private agencies that it said illegally sent thousands of retired soldiers and other workers to Iraq, after luring then to the Middle East with promises of high-paying jobs.

The overwhelming majority, say aid agencies, enter Iraq through Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or Jordan.

The recruitment agencies deliberately send them on this route to circumvent the ban, and then insist that the workers went there entirely on their own volition.

"All too often there are cases of Asians turning up in one Gulf country, only to discover there is no work there so they have to go elsewhere," said Mr O'Neill.

Bend the rules

But despite the horror stories most people who decide to emigrate to the Gulf or Europe do find a good job and earn a lot more than if they had stayed at home.

These Indian women were employed in Iraq as cooks
Some rogue recruitment agencies employing cooks are accused of ruining lives

Azif, another Bangladeshi, worked in Oman for five years and is glad that he made the move.

"Going abroad enabled me and my family substantially to increase our quality of life," he said. "I was able to give my children a decent education and was able to give money to my elderly parents."

Remittances from migrant workers have now overtaken official foreign aid as a source of income in Bangladesh and in many other developing countries, and economists say they will get even larger.

Recruitment agencies say that the activities of a few rogue outfits have damaged the reputation of the vast majority who are professional and do not bend the rules.

Sham Sharalam runs what he says is just such an agency in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka.

He says that his business brings many benefits to the country.

"Ultimately it is bringing down unemployment, and benefiting the country's economy. It makes sense for countries like Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka to export manpower abroad because we have an abundance of it."

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