Migrant Labour: a photodocumentary project by Shahidul Alam

Migrant Labour

The single hope, to change one's destiny, is what ties all migrants together whether they be the Bangladeshis who work in the forests of Malaysia, those who work as unskilled labour in the Middle East or those who go to the promised lands of the US. Not all of them are poor. Many are skilled and well educated. Still, the possibility of changing one's destiny is the single driving force that pushes people into precarious journeys all across the globe. They see it not merely as a means for economic freedom, but also as a means for social mobility.

In the 25 years since independence the middle class in Bangladesh has prospered, and many have climbed the social ladder. But except for a few rags-to-riches stories, the poor have been well and truly entrenched in poverty. They see little hope of ever being able to claw their way out of it, except perhaps through the promise of distant lands.

So it is that hundreds of workers mill around the Kuwait Embassy in Gulshan, the posh part of Dhaka where the wealthy Bangladeshis and the foreigners live, and the arduous struggle begins. False passports, employment agents, attempts to bribe immigration officials, the long uncertain wait.

Some wait outside the office of 'Prince Musa' in Banani. He is king of the agents. His secretary shows me the giant portraits taken with 'coloured gels', in an early Hollywood style. She talks of the culture of the man, his sense of style, his private jet, his place in the world of fashion.

He was himself from a small town in Faridpur who made good. Whether the wealth of the 'Prince' derives mainly from commissions paid by thousands of Bangladeshis or whether, as many assume, it is from lucrative arms deals, the incongruity of it all remains: the fabulously wealthy are earning from the poorest of the poor.

Whereas the 'Prince' has emigrated to the city and saves most of his money abroad, the migrant workers save every penny and send it to the local bank in their village. They have no illusions about 'settling' overseas, knowing only too well their status amongst those who know them only as cheap labour. Bangladesh is clearly, irrevocably, their home. They merely want a better life for themselves than the Bangladeshi princes have reserved for them.

Migrant Labour is a photodocumentary project developed by Shahidul Alam / Drik

The work is ongoing and has been supported by grants from The Andrea Frank Foundation and Autograph

Published: April 3, 2000

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