|"How can one live this way?"
Shahjahan Babus story seems fairly commonplace
A young Bangladeshi man, he lived with his mother and sister in a modest house. A chance meeting with an acquaintance on a rickshaw, and then the fateful question, do you do anything?
"Not really... sometimes I write for the papers... sing, tutor." How much do you earn? "Three or four thousand Taka a month. My mother takes in some sewing." I work for a recruitment agency. If you work abroad, you will be able to bring back money.
This is how it began, according to the documentary My Migrant Soul. The idea cannot have been alien to Babu. In 1993, the year this conversation took place and Babu decided to go to Malaysia, over 240,000 Bangladeshis went to work abroad. But although he must have been aware of the possibility, for some reason Babu had not considered it until then. He decided he wanted to go. Again, some fairly commonplace things happened. In order to go, Babu needed to raise money for his passage and for the agency, Paradise International Travels, to arrange a job and the necessary papers. It might be fair to say that if Babu had this money it varies between $500 and $1,500 in South Asia chances are, he would not have needed to go abroad to work in the first place. So people who want to, or need to, work abroad, in the Gulf, in Malaysia or in Japan, borrow, sell kidneys, or mortgage their tiny dwellings. Babu was lucky. His mother had some land that she sold.
The day came for Babu to leave, and the young man, aware that it might be some time before he came back, did not eat the rich meal his mother had prepared, but asked instead for his "national dish" fermented rice,.onions and green chillies. Babu took the rickshaw to the agency from where he would be taken to the airport, telling his cousin, "Im going abroad. If I live, Ill write the history of my travels. In Malaysia, I will write a poem about it. Ive eaten the national dish and Im taking the national vehicle."
Babus mother, sister and little niece tell us all this. This was the last time they saw him. For about two years after he left, Babu communicated with them through letters and occasionally, tapes that he made for them, talking and singing. Initially, he even sent photographs that show a happy young man with some friends they are all dressed in bright, clean clothes and the pictures resemble tourist shots. Over these, his sister talks about how she saw Babu boarding his flight with other workers from the agency, waving his handkerchief and wiping his eyes. "The workers were packed in like cargo in a box," she says, "thats how they were packed in."
In 1833, some 75 years after the matter started being discussed in public, Britain passed the Abolition of Slavery Act. But slave labour was gravely missed, particularly in sugarcane-growing colonies. So, some bright spark thought up the idea of indentured labour. The premise, like the one Babu was presented with, must have seemed illogical at some point: you pay someone in order to work. Perhaps in places where networks of patronage have a strong hold this does not seem terribly outrageous. Someone does you a favour and finds you a job, but with the understanding that as long as you hold the post you are in some kind of debt perhaps your patron needs a favour that your position allows you to arrange.
But much like present-day Bangladeshi migrant workers in Malaysia or Indians in the Gulf, indentured labourers from South Asia and West Africa went to work on sugar plantations in the South Pacific and the Caribbean with the understanding that although they had paid the recruiter, once they were abroad, to truly pay off their debt they had to work for a minimum of five years in conditions that differed little from those of the slave days. The sugar economy stayed alive, and Britain did fine, which meant the fledgling world economy could progress along its chosen path.
The imperial idea of indentured labour remains brightly illuminated as Asian economies from west to east continue to rely on the manufacturing sector to grow. This is pretty much what recruitment agencies do now. Blue-collar workers abroad often have their passports taken away for safekeeping by the agency. Few are aware of their rights. In factories and on construction sites conditions could be so unsavoury that few locals would do the job for love or money. And in any case, foreign workers are cheaper and come with fewer liabilities.
My Migrant Soul is about one such very distinctive and heartwrenching story. Director Yasmine Kabir could not have found a better protagonist for a documentary on migrant labour. Babus family wants to tell his story, and Kabir obviously had enviable access to their world, but what makes this film so powerful is that Babu, obviously articulate, sensitive and intelligent, decided to send home tapes. His recordings add an immediacy to the film that few accounts narrated after the fact could match.
"Ma, I havent told you, Im in great trouble here. I lost the job at the factory." We start to hear Babus taped voice playing over the footage of migrant workers doing back breaking work at a construction site. Interspersed with these are accounts from his mother and sister about their anxiety for him, which soon turns to despair as Babu slowly reveals a little more of his ordeal each time. Babus hesitant testimony is always accompanied by footage of other migrant workers in Malaysia in similar situations.
The story unfolds slowly, like a nightmare that sucks you in more powerfully the harder you resist. Babu has been separated from the other Bangladeshis he worked with and his documents have been taken away from him. He cannot work legally and so must take on whatever he gets17-hour shifts on construction sites where there is no place to cook, only bricks to sleep on, and for a time, no salary. He thinks it will take him 20, even 30 years to earn back the money he spent to come to Malaysia. At other times he and his friends are unemployed for a couple of months, starving, because the little cash they had went to bribe policemen to leave them alone. Always there is fear and hunger. "How can one live this way," he asks once. "They took all the money I had, I dont repent that. What if they had taken us to jail? Ma, I am terrified of police brutality." Babu, clearly distressed, makes a catalogue of everything he has heard the police can do to you. He does not want to distress his mother, but she is his only connection with a world that is sane and, though difficult, possibly not as hostile as this one. "Who will be held accountable? Who?," he asks poignantly.
His mother and sister, now virtually reduced to living on the streets, occasionally go to the recruitment agency in Dhaka, where they are abused and told to leave. They realise Babu has been sent abroad not on his authentic passport but on a forged one. He himself is slowly realising what is going on. The idea of sending money home does not, cannot, enter his mind now. He is not just scared and depressed he is consumed with guilt that he cannot even recover the money his mother raised to send him to Malaysia. The situation is so far from what he or his family had dreamed, and he is so unsettled, he asks a friend to verify everything he says on the tape. The recruiting agency has their papers and is using them to what ends Babu does not know. He is now living at the ironically-named Paradise Hotel, run by the recruitment agency. He lives and works there behind bars and eats leftover scraps. Occasionally, he and people like him are sent out for terrible, short-lived jobs. "We work one month, then they sell us somewhere else, like in a marketplace ... are they trading in us?"
After this, for a year, silence. No letter, no tape. Then comes the last tape. In every tape Babu has sent, he has accepted a little more, hoped for a little less. On this tape, he is near the end if his tether. "They trade in us to earn their living... and support their families. I also have family. Am I unclaimed?... Everything is lost for me (cries) if my life cant even be saved. Whats the point? Because Im already dead."
At the recruitment agency in Dhaka, the man responsible for this tells Babus mother there is no way of knowing if it is indeed his voice on the tape. Babu is too busy, he implies, to implore his mother to ensure that no one ever gets themselves into this kind of situation. When she begs for her sons life, she is kicked out.
Eight months later, there is more deception. Babus mother is given a photocopy of a ticket and told her son will be back "definitely on Friday. If not, on Monday." She keeps vigil at the airport for three days, watching other young men and women come home. Her son eventually arrives in a coffin. Babu was in an immigration detention camp and died of "pneumonia with asphyxia."
Babu died, but his family lives with the trauma. His niece has strange dreams of him, in which snatches of the songs he sang on the tapes come alive, and that end with his drowning. His sister cannot bear to go anywhere without his coffin and for his mother, even the sight of the pen he left behind is painful. "I feel he still hasnt died," she says, looking at the camera blankly.
This is why My Migrant Soul, which won First Prize at Octobers Film South Asia 2001, is so successful: there is no narrator expounding on the problem of migrant labour. With testimonies like Babus and those of his family members so cleverly cut in with current stills and footage of Bangladeshi migrant workers, the "issue" becomes, slowly, about a very basic question under what conditions, and to what ends, are people expected to live and die.
The opening montage is arresting. In a recruitment office emblazoned with such homilies as "Honesty is the best policy" and the chillingly presumptuous warning "Time once lost cannot be regained", workers are being examined for defects and identifying marks as if they were microchips or fruit. Examination over, the uniformed labourers pack their bags and get on a bus to the airport. They are soon off, in tears, to provide some growing economy with the cheap labour it needs.
But Babus story points to a basic lacuna: capital is free to flow from here to there in a moment, but labour, even if it appears to have the same mobility, cannot. What is happening to Bangladeshis in, say, Malaysia the Malaysian government says that between 1993-1995, 64 people died in immigration detention camps, over half Bangladeshis is not so different from what happens to Mexican workers in the US. The economy needs them to produce goods and provide some services for its own people, or, as is happening in Asias tiger economies, to also make them more global, more transnational to work in the manufacturing sectors that feed into the global supply chains.
The rhetoric and, often, the practice of law in many parts of the world are aimed at keeping exactly this kind of foreigner out, but the economy needs them and capital flows where their presence can be ensured. The movement of capital is the subject of endless legal and political debate and an increasing amount of facilitative legislation. On the other hand, migrant workers like Babu are in a curious position their presence is noted, but unrecorded, the need for them is acknowledged, but they are not factored into planning or legislation.
At the end of the term of the contract, even a worker lucky enough to be in a legitimate job does not have it so easy. Because of their depresed wages, foreign workers often cannot repay the loans on which they have migrated, so they stay on illegally. The law, meanwhile, assumes that they simply vanish at the end of their term. There is no record of their presence and, since they work in the illegal economy, they do not have any rights. Which is when cases like that of Nepali Govinda Mainali become so fraught. Mainali went to Japan in 1994. Three years later, he was still there, working at an Indian restaurant. And then he was implicated in the murder of a senior economist who moonlighted as a sex worker. Mainali was illegally detained, tried and sentenced to life imprisonment. The case has been extremely controversial in Japan, with a number of lawyers and legal academics arguing that Mainali did not receive a fair trail because he is a foreigner and because he was illegal.
Even workers who migrate for work within nation states have few laws protecting them. For instance, workers today consitute the largest segment of the Indian population, and a great many of them are rural migrants working in the unorganised sector. In effect, they do not really exist in administrative eyes. So, when there are natural or other calamities, there is no accurate record of who has been affected or which families have lost a breadwinner. Migrant workers are simply not factored into relief efforts, and they fall between the cracks in any system of compensation.
Babu asks more than once in the film whether this is any way for a human being to live. In 1914, a man called Totaram Sanadhya published an account in India of his experience of the indenture system called My Twenty-One Years in the Fiji Islands, asking much the same question. The book was widely read and discussed with a good deal of outrage, and MK Gandhi, among others, was moved to write to the authorities in Fiji. Shortly thereafter, the system was dismantled. Without an account like Sanadhyas, the indentured system it would perhaps have dragged on in Fiji, undebated, until the Colonial Sugar Refining Company decided the practice was no longer profitable.
My Migrant Soul faces a far greater challenge in these cynical times, to rouse people
about a phenomenon that seems so overreaching and authoritative, but the film is in its
own way equally powerful. It needs to be seen.
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