How can one live this way?

My Migrant Soul

Bangladesh, 2000

Colour, Beta-SP/PAL, 35′

Bengali, Direction: Yasmine Kabir

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, "I'm going abroad. If I live, I'll write the history of my travels. In Malaysia, I will write a poem about it. I've eaten the national dish and I'm taking the national vehicle." Babu's 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, "that's 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 pat­ ronage have a strong hold this does not seem terribly outrageous. Some­ one 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 Ban­ g.Iadeshi migrant workers in Malay­ sia or Indians in the Gulf , indentu­ red labourers from South Asia and West Africa went to work on sugar plantations in the South Pacific and the  Caribbean   with   the  under­ standing  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 manu­ facturing  sector  to grow . This  is pretty much what recruitment agen­ cies 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  un­ savoury that few locals would do the job for love or money . And in any case, foreign workers are chea­ per and come with fewer liabilities.

My Migrant  Soul  is about one such very distincti v e and heart­ wrenching story. Director Yasmine Kabir could not have found a better protagonist  for   a   documentary on migrant labour . Babu 's 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 , obvi­ ously articulate, sensitive and inte­ lligent , decided to send home tapes . His recordings add  an immediacy to the film that few accounts narra­ ted after the fact could match.

"Ma , I haven't  told  you,  I'm in great trouble here. I lost the job at the factory ." We start to hear Babu's 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. Babu 's hesitant testimony is always accompanied by footage of other migrant workers in Malay­ sia 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 what­ ever   he   gets-17-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 unem­ ployed   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 don't repent that.

What  if they had  taken us to jail? Ma, I am terrified of police bruta­ o lity ." {labu, clearly distressed , o makes a catalogue of everything he i has heard the police can do to you . e He does not want  to distress his other , but she is his only connec­ tion with a world that is sane and though  difficult,  possibly  not  a 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 recruit­ ment 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.  Occa­ sionally, 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 market­ place …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? … Every­ thing is lost for me ( cries) if my life can't  even  be  saved.  What 's the point? Because I'm already dead ."

At the recruitment agency in Dhaka, the man responsible for this tells Babu's 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 son's life, she is kicked out.

Eight months later, there is more deception. Babu's 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 hasn't died," she says, looking at the camera blankly. This is why My Migrant Soul, which won First Prize at October's Film South Asia 2001, is so successful: there is no narrator expounding on the problem of migrant labour. With testimonies like Babu's 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 Babu's 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 Asia's '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 unorganized 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 Sanadhya's, 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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Himal Southasian