Migrant workers ‘in throes of medical juggernaut’

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“You’re suffering from hepatitis C. So you can’t leave for Saudi Arabia,” tells the receptionist at a medical facility in the provincial metropolis to a migrant worker seeking reemployment in the oil kingdom.

Anwar has earlier served as a cab driver in Riyadh for three years and has returned home a few months ago on the expiry of his contract.

“How can I get this problem fixed?” asks he, shocked by the news of his dreaded ailment. Under the law (of the host country) he needs medical clearance before leaving his home country for the job abroad.

“Go and get your ailment treated before coming again for fresh tests,” he is told.

“But that will take months,” bemoans he, knowing that the costly treatment of this disease requires at least six months and sitting unemployed here he can’t even run his kitchen what to talk of bearing the extra burden of medical expenses.

An employee of the health facility, designated by the overseas employment promoters, standing close by whispers to Anwar that the medical (clearance) certificate can be managed provided he (Anwar) agrees to pay a sum of Rs30,000.

The deal is settled for Rs15,000 after some negotiations as Anwar returns home relieved and with the medical certificate.

This is not an occasional incident or the story of an illiterate or poorly literate person. If one visits any of these designated medical centres, at least six in Lahore, one may encounter numerous such stories detailing sufferings of migrant workers at the hands of our “own people”.

Progressive Workers Federation General Secretary Niaz Khan, whose brother is also one of the victims, says as the designated health facilities wield monopoly they exploit the situation and fleece their “own brothers” what to talk of the agonies the workers had to face at the hands of their employers in the destination countries.

“My brother too had to undergo (medical) tests thrice as each time one of the health facilities in Lahore would detect some health issue only to mint money through repeated tests,” he says.

Though not everybody is subjected to this treatment most are, claims the labour leader.

“The facility employees judge whether the certificate seeker is from rural areas (with poor knowledge) and can be easily made to pay for getting rid of the nuisance.”

A medical practitioner at one of the health centres admits the problem but absolves the owners of the corrupt practices holding instead the technicians responsible for it.

But Khan differs with the view. “A technician may not go beyond pocketing a couple of thousands. As the daily amount of the fleeced money goes up to millions how this can go unnoticed by the owners.”

He claims that the workers heading for Europe or Canada are made to pay even higher amounts, up to Rs150,000 per case.

The unscrupulous elements are so daring that they challenged an employee of a known media house to do what he can when they demanded Rs50,000 from him for medical clearance for a job in Qatar, he says.

An official of the Punjab government working on labour migration admits that in some cases the workers are being subjected to unfair practices when they go for medical certification but cites lack of jurisdiction in directly tackling the issue.

“(Labour) migration is a federal subject so we can’t interfere or take action on our own,” says Tahir Manzoor, director of the Industrial Relations Institute, which houses and runs the first-ever Migrant Resource Centre developed with the ILO assistance.

“We’re preparing recommendations for the federal authorities to resolve this and other problems being faced by migrant workers,” he hastens to add.

According to him, a study is also being conducted with the help of ILO to identify the problems, including health issues, being faced by the migrant labourers.

Labour activists, however, did not agree that the provincial authorities are toothless to check this menace.

“At least the Anti-Corruption Establishment may be moved against the corrupt medical centre owners and technicians for robbing the poor workers of their hard-earned money,” says Khan.

“The issue is lack of will and/or lethargy of the officialdom.”

(Originally published in the Dawn, Pakistan.)

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