Unsung heroes of the economy
December 18 is known as World Migrants Day, not that you would know it unless you read a small snippet in the inside pages on the 19th. This is a decidedly unfashionable subject. It panders to our worst prejudices. It is visible on the faces of all "superior" professionals flocking back to the motherland during the school holidays over Christmas and New Year.
Attitudes are most apparent on the Middle Eastern airlines where educated middle class earners are forced to share rows of seats with the labourers returning from Saudi Arabia.
By coincidence, December 16 is celebrated as Victory Day when the two militaries signed the surrender of Pakistani forces, while the Mukti Bahini, and the people, looked on. The papers are filled with the true stories of heroism, barbarity, and sacrifice in the heady days of prior to liberation. Alongside you find articles dripping with sentimentality describing how we were united as one, in one common endeavour.
A lot of it is, as they say on the streets of Dhaka, "eyewash." There was indeed unity. Without the support and bravery of ordinary people, taking immense risks to hide, feed and shelter the freedom fighters, the struggle would have been difficult if not impossible.
The freedom fighters themselves were mainly drawn from the ranks of the poor, numbering countless thousands. Imagine what would have happened if the Indian Army had not stepped in and the war had gone on. The story would have been different then.
Instead, what we really had was an educated middle class leading the mass population. The latter were the foot soldiers and it was on their behalf that the struggle was conducted. Once victory was assured, the people were expected to go back to their traditional roles.
By now we will have forgotten all this and we look forward to February 21 for more reminiscences and calls for unity.
The new army
In today's economic war to earn foreign exchange there are two groups of people who are offering their labour. The garments industry, overwhelmingly staffed by young poor women, is well known and deservedly so. The other is rather less well known and ignored. They are the millions of migrants, sending billions of dollars every year (at least 4 billion officially). While the garments women have allowed for spin-off industries and employment of others in shipping, finance and ancillary sectors, the net foreign exchange earned by Ready-Made Garments is a lot less than we realise. While officials love to crow about $5 billion or more in exports, they are remarkably quiet about the $3.5 billion we need to import to feed those exports. In other words, the net dollars earned comes to around $1.5 billion, or less than a third. At most, let us say $2 billion?
In other words, migrants send at least double officially, and probably another $2 billion on top unofficially, via the hundi or hawala.
Compare the newsprint devoted to the migrant with that of practically any other sector and the migrant loses hands down. Why? Can we do without him (mostly male, though that may be about to change)?
Turn off the tap of migrants remittances and you shut down the government, economy, and normal politics. You will not receive this daily newspaper because the electricity power plants would stop working, the fuel tanks in the cars and trucks would not be filled, refineries would stop pumping, lights would go out, the shops plazas would empty out as shelves would resemble those in North Korea, factories would shut down as raw materials failed to come in and the docks would come to a standstill. Did I forget to mention the food riots as imports of rice and wheat failed to materialise?
The economic machine is oiled and supplied by the remittances of the millions working in the Middle East and South East Asia. On top, you have the traditional migrant, who has become a settler in North America or Britain, who continues to send money forty years on after their or their parents' journey.
So if that is the case and we cannot do without them, why don't we talk about the migrant?
One reason may be because we are too busy counting the money. The Finance Ministry just wants the Manpower Ministry to keep on sending armies of workers (new migrants) abroad as fast as they can. The more the better. The battle is on for diverting money from the hundi to the banks. Migrants, you may have noticed, are "exported." We do not send people abroad to take jobs and wonder if they will be exploited or not. They are a resource which needs to earn in rials, pounds, dollars, and dirhams. Not in taka please.
The migrant machine resembles a giant conveyor belt from village to ZIA International Airport, coming out in Dubai and onwards to white elephant projects, funded by sheikhdoms, selling oil and gas. Money is wired via banks, straight to the coffers of Bangladesh Bank, which then ensures that all those dollars go to purchasing vital industrial materials, fuel, and consumer goods (including food).
The Filipino model of development may be nothing to be proud of as they lag decades behind their neighbours. In one crucial area, however, they have got it spot on and we need to learn from them. The Philippines is even more dependent on remittances than we are. Their women (not men) keep their economy in business. Their government has designated migrants as "heroes." They receive incentives, facilities, and assistance. It starts off with a fanfare and welcome at the airport, as a sign of official appreciation of what they have achieved for the country. There is even a manual on how to deal with migrants and how to re-integrate them into society on their return.
What do we do? Our immigration officers bark orders at them to get into line in front of the passport desks. We look greedily at their luggage and ask if they have any electronic goods? The taxi touts charge double and what can we say about the other transport arrangements?
Welcome to Bangladesh.
Hold on a second. Is this not the land of micro-credit? Are not the NGOs performing miracles? So what happens to the migrant after he gets home, hands out the presents, talks about his adventures or misfortunes and then wonders what to do. How many NGO branches do you think have been set up to look after the millions of returning migrants? Two thousand? One thousand maybe?
See if you can get into double figures.
A couple of tiny NGOs, struggling in cramped offices, are all there is, plus a few academics mentioning the subject, after receiving grants from donors for yet another piece of research.
So let us start at the beginning. Because we are poor and we have failed economic policies, we are unable to provide jobs to the one million people who come onto the job market every year. With 250,000 flying out every year as temporary migrants, we are avoiding a social explosion and at the same time receiving irreplaceable foreign exchange. Thousands of others are no doubt crossing over to India and why not? People have to survive, don't they?
The majority of these migrants are poor, badly educated, and unaware of their rights or their future. They need their government and their political class to ensure that their rights are being protected in the Middle East. They also need to see that their government regulates the recruitment agencies and stops the abuse of overcharging for "visa and other fees." On their return, the government and private sector needs to set up a process of re-entry and re-integration into society.
Has any one thought about the social and psychological damage to children of one parent's enforced absence for years on end? Has any one worked out what kind of advice and training the returnee receives?
And what about our much vaunted NGOs? Even here, the big ones are trying to get their hands on the remittances and earn commissions, and least bothered about the fate of the individual.
In summary, all our regimes have done relatively well in producing financial instruments to capture more of the foreign migrant dollar (especially from America and Europe). The other half of the equation of treating the migrant as a person has been missing. As a test, look out for the subject of migrants in your favourite newspaper for the next thirty days. Keep an eye out for seminars and roundtables about this topic. I am giving you good odds because this is the peak time for settlers or Non-Resident Bangladeshis to come over for a winter holiday visit, and therefore the likeliest time to get some publicity going.
The Grand 14 party alliance produced its 23 points with such fanfare in November. Do you think they found space to mention the migrants issue? How does that phrase end … out of sight … out of?
The migrant is invisible on the political agenda. Until they make their presence felt, expect no change.
Farid Bakht is a Non-Resident Bangladeshi.