Illustration: SHARARA ZAHEEN

By Zyma Islam
May 24 2019 (IPS-Partners)

Little-educated women from remote villages find themselves sold as sex-workers in the Middle East, because neither the government nor recruiting agencies can authenticate foreign employers seeking housemaids.

Her home is two boat rides away from central Narsingdi—first, a boat drops you off on the outermost banks of the char, and then after crossing half a mile across the sandy islet, a smaller dinghy takes you down a canal that feeds into the body of char. On either side of the sediment-heavy canal is pure unadulterated beauty—long sandy banks that get overridden with the tall grassy kashful in autumn, followed by lush green woodlands deeper inland. The only other traffic in the canal are families of waddling ducks and the rare clique of kids splashing about. The dinghy drops you at a place where you get your first glimpse of a paved road—that too, one that is barely wide enough to fit a single battery-run three-wheeler that you have to take all the way to the very end of the road. From there her home is once again a half mile away across fields.

Her landless parents work as sharecroppers on other people’s fields where the going-rate is Tk 60 per day, making their family “ultra-poor” in academic terms. As a result, neither Kohinur, nor her younger brothers and sisters have completed even primary school. Scat trails around the house points out that the family practices open defecation.

So, when this teenager was approached a local broker named Badol, offering her a job as a housemaid with a Tk 18,000 monthly salary in Saudi Arabia, her parents found no reason to say no. “We thought she was going to the land of Makkah and Madina, she was going to be close to Allah, so we chose to send her,” says her mother, a woman who is barely in her forties, but looks decades older as a result of a life of hard labour.

Kohinur was stuffed into a head-to-toe black burkha to get her passport photo taken. The tiny nervous face peering through the burkha’s visor in her official portrait, was passed off as a 26-year-old married woman with two children in her passport, because it is not legal to send any woman under the age of 25 abroad. Then, clutching her fabricated passport, the teenager left her pristine homeland on a town-bound boat loaded with harvest, livestock, farmers and traders—the only vessels large enough to ply the Meghna river.

Atiyah was sold to a brothel in Lebanon by brokers of a government accredited recruiting agency.

Her recruiting agency, M/S Biplob International, secured a work clearance for her from the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET), and her details were uploaded to a database run by the Saudi government. They then matched her up with an employer who said he was looking for a housemaid. Kohinur flew out on October 30, 2018.

But once she reached Saudi Arabia, she realised that the house was not a family home; it was a brothel.

“They traded her like we trade goats and cattle,” says Kohinur’s mother, “Every day in the evening, men would come to the home to take her and return her by the morning.” Sometimes the customers took her for days, and one even kept her for a month.

“They beat her twice a day with wound up cables. She begged one of the other girls in the brothel to let her use a phone to call us. We informed the broker Badol that our daughter is in a brothel, and to prove that, she had to manage a video call. The girls helped her,” describes her mother.

The broker demanded Tk 45,000 from the family to bring back the girl. “We loaned the money from a moneylender at a steep interest,” says the mother. Kohinur finally came back on January 13, 2019.

“We got her married last month to a construction worker, before word spread that she was made to do sex work in Saudi Arabia. She is not 18 yet. Such is the luck of my daughter, that her husband was too poor to even buy her a wedding sari. They gave her a normal cotton sari, and a cotton salwar kameez set,” laments the mother.

Illustration: SHARARA ZAHEEN

Just a few miles away, on the same char, another ultra-poor family’s daughter was also sent to Saudi Arabia to do sex work. 25-year-old Armin* and her two children were abandoned by her husband, leaving her to live with her parents. Her father barely scrapes a living by picking peanuts on others’ land. Her home is a broken-down one-roomed shanty shared with their livestock. Cooking fuel made with dried cow dung and grass were stacked up to the ceiling by the foot of the bed, making the entire room smell—but they have nowhere else to keep it.

“They threw my daughter off the second floor of the brothel because she refused to give in to their demands,” says Armin’s mother. Armin survived the fall, but now has a crippled arm and a foot. The doctors had to surgically insert a rod into her leg to mend the fracture. A long scar extends from her upper arm to her shoulder, where the skin had split upon impact. Another scar nestles between her eyebrows on her forehead. The fall also broke two of her front teeth. A disabled, penniless Armin was deported from Saudi Arabia and sent back to Bangladesh on June 8, 2018.

Both Kohinur and Armin had gone through legal channels. The BMET had cleared them for work. A Saudi government-accredited recruiting agency from Saudi Arabia had uploaded the details of their employers to a database system that is accessible to the recruiting agencies in Bangladesh and the BMET—so both of them were aware of whom the women were being sent to. How is it that after Kohinur and Armin were legally sent to Saudi Arabia, they ended up doing sex work?

It seems as if every single person and body involved in Bangladesh send these women abroad like throwing a stone in the dark and hoping it hits the target. In spite of the introduction of digital database systems for employers and microchip-enabled smartcards for workers, nobody in Bangladesh has any way to verify whether the employers are legit.

Villages where these women come from are remote, but still has shops dedicated to sending migrant workers abroad.

For example, when the government was asked how these women ended up as sex slaves, they said they are not in charge of verification of the employers.

“We do not choose the employers, it is the local recruiting agencies that coordinate with the recruiting agencies in the target country to find the employers,” said Mujibur Rahman, the director of emigration and protocol at BMET.

So, we asked Shameem Ahmed Chowdhury Noman, the secretary-general of the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (BAIRA) how it is that women are legally being sent abroad to work in brothels.

“We cannot vet the employers. That is the job of the Saudi recruiting agencies,” he says.

Meanwhile Kohinur’s recruiting agency flat out denied sending anyone by that name, although records at BMET, disclosed to this correspondent by their officials, state otherwise. “We did not send anyone by that name last year,” says the managing director, AKM Jashimuddin.

“Everyone involved in this trade is doing business but neither the government nor the recruiting agencies are willing to take responsibility,” says Shakirul Islam, chairperson of Ovibashi Karmi Unnoyon Program (OKUP), an organisation providing support to migrant workers.

“The recruiting agencies receive USD 2,000 for every woman sent to Saudi Arabia for example, so there is a monetary incentive to do business with all sorts of employers,” alleges Shariful Hasan, head of BRAC’s migration programme. According to data provided by BRAC, 1,353 female abuse survivors returned just from Saudi Arabia alone between January to December last year. Among them, five were pregnant. There are no official statistics on how many female workers returning to Bangladesh were forced to work as sex slaves.

The responsibility—as it stands—has been shifted entirely on the young, vulnerable shoulders of the women being taken in as sex slaves.

“There is only one way for us to get employers blacklisted—if an allegation gets proven in the foreign courts,” says Noman, “and for that the woman who makes the accusation must stay back in that country, and battle the case out in court. If she wins, the employer is blacklisted.”

“But activists and her family members keep pressurising us to bring them back.”

In effect, in order for Bangladeshi authorities to acknowledge an employer as a “pimp” or a sexual abuser, female migrant workers have to put their lives on hold, stay back in the country where they had been abused and engage in lengthy court battles that could last years. For this, they have to seek help from the Bangladesh consulate in that respective country.

This is a tall order for women like Kohinur and Armin. Firstly, they go abroad to salvage their families from poverty, making it impossible to stay back to fight legal battles. Secondly neither of the women even knew which city they were taken to! So how would they find the Bangladeshi embassy?

On the other hand, accusations without convictions are not enough for recruiting agencies on either side to blacklist an employer.

“If the employer is not blacklisted, there is no existing system for a recruiting agency to communicate to the other Bangladeshi recruiting agencies that a certain employer runs a brothel, instead of a family home,” continues Noman, “so they may end up sending more women to the same person.” Evidently, crowdsourcing information does not hold much stock in this industry.

“Besides the woman could be lying,” concludes Noman, stating that recruiting agencies have had to deal with cases of false allegations.

The scenario does not get better.

“When the woman chooses to return back home, she has to sign a document saying that she is terminating the employment. We are then legally obligated to either return the USD 2,000 we were paid for recruiting the girl or send another woman,” states Noman. He assures that recruiting agencies forgo the money rather than sending another woman to the same house.

Unfortunately, in practice, that money paid by the recruiting agency to employers to release the woman often comes from the families themselves—so not only do the women have to endure the torture, but they also have to pay crippling amounts of money to secure their release. When 20-year-old Atiyah’s* husband received a call from Jordan that barely lasted two minutes, but constituted of his wife crying and saying “they have sent me to a bad house” over and over again, he knew he must get her back.

The construction worker from a village in Baghata, Narsingdi loaned Tk 1,36,000 (approximately USD 1,700) from a moneylender and handed it over to the broker who had sent his wife to Lebanon. Atiyah was brought back 18 days after she was sent to Lebanon, but unfortunately the family’s expenses weren’t over yet.

As a result of the gang-rape and torture Atiyah was subjected to, her health was affected and she suffered gynaecological complications. “I came back in 2017, and got pregnant the same year, but something went wrong with the pregnancy and they had to surgically remove a part of the body where the baby grows,” says Atiyah quietly.

Her medical records show that her right fallopian tube ruptured, and had to be surgically removed. “The doctor told me I cannot have a baby anymore,” she adds. The surgery cost them Tk 70,000, and this, too, her husband had to loan from a moneylender.

“The torture there was horrible. I was not given any food to eat—not a single grain of rice. I was only given alcohol. I survived on the chanachur snacks my husband had packed for me before I left for Lebanon. I ate barely a morsel a day to make the packet last. In that state, I had to dress up in just underwear to serve up to four men at a time every night,” describes Atiyah.

“And now my father and brothers are blaming me, saying it was my fault and that I had gone abroad to do sex work, so they cut me off from my inheritance,” says the survivor.

But even under sky-high debt, the survivor is not without hope—a sobering reminder of the patience and endurance of migrant workers. When asked what she wants to do with her life now, Atiyah starts to talk about her talents. “I am very good at rearing chickens! Maybe I could try my hand at that? See I have two already!” she grinned. Her beautiful large black eyes, which were glassy and dead while talking about her time in Lebanon, now lit up her entire face.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the women

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

Class Analyst: Global Income Inequality

Credit: IMF

By Chris Wellisz
WASHINGTON DC, May 24 2019 – As a child growing up in Communist Yugoslavia, Branko Milanovic witnessed the protests of 1968, when students occupied the campus of the University of Belgrade and hoisted banners reading “Down with the Red bourgeoisie!”

Milanovic, who now teaches economics at the City University of New York, recalls wondering whether his own family belonged to that maligned group. His father was a government official, and unlike many Yugoslav kids at the time, Milanovic had his very own bedroom—a sign of privilege in a nominally classless society. Mostly he remembers a sense of excitement as he and his friends loitered around the edge of the campus that summer, watching the students sporting red Karl Marx badges.

“I think that the social and political aspects of the protests became clearer to me later,” Milanovic says in an interview. Even so, “1968 was, in many ways, a watershed year” in an intellectual journey that has seen him emerge as a leading scholar of inequality. Decades before it became a fashion in economics, inequality would be the subject of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Belgrade.

Today, Milanovic is best known for a breakthrough study of global income inequality from 1988 to 2008, roughly spanning the period from the fall of the Berlin Wall—which spelled the beginning of the end of Communism in Europe—to the global financial crisis.

The 2013 article, co-written with Christoph Lakner, delineated what became known as the “elephant curve” because of its shape (see chart). It shows that over the 20 years that Milanovic calls the period of “high globalization,” huge increases in wealth were unevenly distributed across the world.

The middle classes in developing economies—mainly in Asia—enjoyed a dramatic increase in incomes. So did the top 1 percent of earners worldwide, or the “global plutocrats.”

Meanwhile, the lower middle classes in advanced economies saw their earnings stagnate.

The elephant curve’s power lies in its simplicity. It elegantly summarizes the source of so much middle-class discontent in advanced economies, discontent that has turbocharged the careers of populists from both extremes of the political spectrum and spurred calls for trade barriers and limits on immigration.

“Branko had a deep influence on global inequality research, particularly with his findings on the elephant curve, which has set the tone for future research,” says Thomas Piketty, author of the bestselling Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Piketty and his collaborators confirmed the findings in a 2018 study, which found that the top 1 percent globally captured twice as much of total growth as the bottom 50 percent from 1980 to 2016.

Milanovic’s findings “appear to be even more spectacular than what was initially suggested,” Piketty says. “The elephant looks more like a mammoth.”

Economists long disdained the study of inequality. Many lived in a theoretical world populated by a mythical figure known as homo economicus, or rational man, whose only attribute was a drive to maximize his well-being. Differences among people, or groups, were irrelevant. Variety was irrelevant. Only averages mattered.

In this world of identical rational actors, the forces of supply and demand worked their magic to determine prices and quantities of goods, capital, and labor in a way that maximized welfare for society as a whole. The distribution of wealth or income didn’t fit into the picture. It was simply a by-product of market forces.

“The market solves everything,” Milanovic says. “So the topic really was not—still is not—totally mainstream.”

Then came the global financial crisis of 2008, and with it “the rise of the realization that the top 1 percent or the top 5 percent have really vastly outstripped, in income growth, the middle class,” he says.

The study of inequality also got a boost from the explosion of data that can be mined with evermore powerful computers, making it easier to divide the anonymous masses of consumers and workers into groups with common characteristics. Big data, he says, “enables the study of heterogeneity, and inequality is by definition heterogenous.”

Data has always been one of Milanovic’s passions, alongside his interest in social classes, which flourished during his high school years in Brussels, where his economist father was posted as Yugoslav envoy to the then–European Economic Community.

“High school in Belgium—and I think it was the same in France—was very Marxist,” he says.

His classmates were divided between leftist kids, influenced by the student movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and “bourgeois” kids. As the privileged son of a diplomat representing an ostensibly workers’ government, young Branko didn’t quite fit either category. “It was a very peculiar situation,” he says.

At university in Belgrade, Milanovic initially leaned toward philosophy but decided economics would be more practical. It also offered a way to combine his interests in statistics and social classes.

Graduate studies led to a fellowship at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where he was impressed by American abundance—huge portions of inexpensive food, free refills of coffee, big cars—alongside stark income inequality and racial discrimination.

Two years later, he was back in Belgrade to work on his doctoral dissertation on inequality in Yugoslavia, mining rare household survey data supplied by a friend who worked in the federal statistical office.

While his dissertation raised eyebrows in Marxist Yugoslavia—along with his decision to avoid joining the Communist Party—it launched a two-decade career at the World Bank’s Research Department.

“Branko was really one of the leading experts, even at that time, on income distribution,” says Alan Gelb, who hired Milanovic to join a small team studying the transition to market economies in post-Communist eastern Europe. Milanovic focused on issues of poverty and income distribution.

The wealth of data the World Bank collects was a priceless resource, and it inspired Milanovic to carry out cross-country comparisons of inequality, which were a novelty. One day in 1995, Milanovic was talking with Gelb’s successor as the head of his unit.

“I suddenly had this idea: ‘Look, we have all this data from around the world. We study individual countries, but we never put them together.’ ” Four years later, he published the first study of global income distribution based on household surveys.

In the years that followed, Milanovic published widely and profusely. Alongside his work on post-Communist economies, he continued to explore inequality and its link with globalization. His articles and books display the broad range of his interests, which include history, literature, and sports.

In one article, he estimates the average income and inequality level in Byzantium in the year 1000. Another looks at the links between labor mobility and inequality in soccer, which he calls the most globalized sport.

He found that club soccer has become very unequal because a dozen top European teams can afford to recruit the world’s best players. On the other hand, the free movement of soccer players has reduced inequality among national teams. The reason: players from small countries can hone their skills at top club teams, then return home to compete for their national teams.

Literary conversations with his wife, Michele de Nevers, a specialist in climate finance at the Center for Global Development, inspired him to write an offbeat analysis of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Arguing that the book is as much about money as love, he estimates the incomes of various characters and looks at how wealth influences the choice of mates for Austen’s protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet.

He did the same for Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Both essays were published in Milanovic’s 2011 book, The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality .

Another book, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization, was a milestone that synthesized years of his scholarship on inequality within and among countries since the Industrial Revolution.

In contrast to Piketty, who argues that inequality inexorably widens under capitalism, Milanovic sees it moving in waves or cycles under the influence of what he calls benign and malign forces.

In advanced economies, income disparity widened in the 19th and early 20th centuries until the malign forces of war and hyperinflation reduced it by destroying wealth. After World War II, benign forces such as progressive taxation, more powerful labor unions, and more widely accessible education pushed inequality down.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was a watershed. It brought the former Soviet bloc states into the global economy at a time when China also began opening up. Rapid growth in the developing world narrowed inequality between countries while widening it in the developed world, where middle-class incomes stagnated as the wealthy prospered.

What does the future hold? It looks good for much of the developing world and especially Asia, which will continue to catch up with the rich countries. In advanced economies, on the other hand, the outlook seems grimmer.

There, the twin forces of globalization and technological innovation will continue to squeeze the middle class. Social mobility will decline as an entrenched elite benefits from greater access to expensive higher education and wields its political clout to enact “pro-rich” policies, such as favorable tax regimes.

As income disparities grow, so will social tensions and political strife—a prognosis confirmed by events such as Brexit and protests in France that have occurred since the book’s publication in 2016.

Milanovic worries that this friction might lead to a “decoupling” of democracy and capitalism, resulting in plutocracy in the United States and populism or nativism in Europe.

While there has been considerable debate about inequality over the past decade, “nothing has really moved” in policy terms, he says. “We are on this automatic pilot which basically leads to higher inequality. But I am not totally losing faith.”

The traditional answer—redistribution of income—won’t work as well as it did in the past because of the mobility of capital, which allows the wealthy to shelter their incomes in tax havens. Instead, policy should aim for a redistribution of “endowments” such as wealth and education.

Measures would include higher inheritance taxes, policies that encourage companies to distribute shares to workers, and increased state funding for education.

“We cannot achieve that tomorrow,” he says. “But I think we should have an idea that we want to move to a capitalist world where endowments would be much more equally distributed than today.”

Milanovic also takes on the nettlesome issue of inequality between countries. He calculates that an American, simply by virtue of being born in the United States, will earn 93 times more than a person born in the world’s poorest country.

This is what Milanovic calls the “citizenship premium,” and it gives rise to pressure for migration as people born in poor countries seek their fortunes in richer ones.

Milanovic argues that halting migration is no more feasible than halting the movement of goods or capital. Yet it’s also unrealistic to expect citizens of advanced economies to open their borders. His solution: allow more immigrants but deny them the full rights of citizenship, and perhaps tax them to compensate citizens displaced in the labor force.

His current work, in a way, brings him back to his roots in Yugoslavia. It involves the study of class structure in the People’s Republic of China and, in particular, a close look at the top 5 percent of the income distribution. It forms a part of his next book, Capitalism, Alone, which argues that China has developed a distinct form of capitalism that will coexist with its liberal forebear.

Where is the study of inequality headed? Milanovic sees two frontiers, both driven by the availability of new data. One is wealth inequality, à la Piketty; the other is intergenerational inequality, a subject plumbed by economists such as Harvard’s Raj Chetty.

The two areas “appeal to young people who are now very socially aware,’’ he says. “On the other hand, they are very smart and want to work on tough topics.” He adds, “I am very optimistic in that sense.”

*Opinions expressed in articles and other materials are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect IMF policy.