A year of stunted labour and remittance flow
Labour migration is one of three important sectors that are contributing immensely towards achieving the dream of Bangladesh to transform itself into a middle income country -- readymade garments and the services are the other two.
Both male and female migrant workers contribute to the economy of Bangladesh by sending remittances. They also bring back new knowledge, skills and technology. Recent studies have shown that left behind members of migrant families and the return migrants contribute more compared to non-migrant families in modernizing agriculture by using mechanized equipment, high quality seeds, insecticide and ensuring adequate irrigation. Migrant families are also contributing in creating the new trend of rejuvenation of rural economies through cash crop production, fisheries, poultry etc. Through their improved purchasing power they directly influence the rural market places.
Besides, over the last nine years Bangladesh could maintain the status of a country with surplus balance of payment due to constant flow of remittances. Net foreign exchange earning through migration is 3.3 times higher compared to that from the RBG and 7 times more than the foreign aid received by the country. Migration is indeed the golden deer of Bangladesh. This piece makes an assessment of the achievements and concerns in the area of migration in 2013.
Since 2000, in the face of demands from civil society organizations, successive governments of Bangladesh have taken measures to better govern the sector. Reform of 2006 Overseas Employment Policy, enactment of 2013 Foreign Employment and Migrant Welfare Act, decentralized system of online registration of workers are some of the important steps taken by the government in 2013. However, 2013 is particularly a year of concern for those who monitor trend of labour migration from Bangladesh. This year the flow of labour migration has reduced significantly. However, an upward trend of migration from other sending countries to concerned destinations where Bangladesh sent workers continued.
In 2012, 607798 workers went abroad for employment. In 2013 up to 22 December only 373409 workers have gone abroad. Compared to the previous year it is more than 30 percent less, and the flow is nearly one third compared to 2008. Last year Bangladesh also has been unsuccessful in reentering its traditional largest market-Saudi Arabia. In September 2012, UAE imposed restriction on migration on Bangladeshis. Hardly any success was experienced in withdrawing those restrictions except in case of unskilled women workers.
With a genuine objective of reducing high cost of migration the government of Bangladesh pursued recruitment of workers through government to government arrangement with Malaysia. There was a great expectation that over the next few years four to five lakh workers would migrate to Malaysia under the new arrangement. Unfortunately, under the G2G system, over the last one and half years, government could send about 1000 workers only, whereas migration to Malaysia from Myanmar and Nepal accelerated in a major way. This year Oman is the largest migrant receiving country of Bangladesh, followed by Singapore and Qatar. A close scrutiny of the destination countries of 2013 shows that a section of migrants have gone to countries such as Iraq, Libya and Sudan that are not politically stable. This year female migration increased significantly. 13.74 per cent of those who went abroad are women.
Another major issue of concern of migration trend is reduction in migration of skilled workers. In 2010, 40 percent of those who migrated were skilled workers. In 2011 and 2012 the figure came down to 40.34 and 34 percent respectively. This year it slid further to 20.08 percent of total workers. Almost all the labour sending countries who took part in short term contract labour market made conscious decision to reduce migration of unskilled workers as exploitation and violation of rights are higher in the unskilled labour market. Although the overseas employment policy of Bangladesh targeted promotion of skilled migration as one of its major objectives, one witnesses hardly any action plan to achieve that.
Irregular migration from Bangladesh continued to be a major concern. Migration from Teknaf to Malaysia through sea, migration attempts to Europe through Iran, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia have hit news headlines many a time in 2013. Migrants are taking high risk when they take part in irregular migration. Cheating, fraud, extortion and death are the outcomes that were reported. A large number of Bangladeshi workers were deported from Saudi Arabia and Malaysia this year. Many of them are in jail and detention camps of receiving countries. The group which sends irregular migrants through sea to Malaysia has been identified by the media but the government has not taken any action against such illegal recruiters.
Working conditions of male and female migrants in destination countries are major areas of concern for RMMRU and other national and international human rights organizations. Of course, working conditions of some of the companies in the receiving countries are quite good, yet low wage, non-payment of wage, contract substitution, unregulated working hours, risky work environment, unhygienic living condition, insecure movement, particularly of women garments workers, and absence of collective bargaining system characterize majority of the employers in the Middle East and a section of the Southeast Asian countries. Bangladesh, like most other origin countries, did not deal with these issues effectively in 2013 out of fear of losing the market. In recent times, different regional migrant and human rights forums have taken up these issues seriously. The concerned government bodies of different ministries of Bangladesh still work under the bureaucratic compulsion of avoiding these organizations rather than providing them with information on violation of rights of migrants.
Nonetheless, there are some issues which are directly linked with embassy services. Migrants are not receiving due care in those areas as well. A scrutiny of complaints placed by the migrants in 2013 (RMMRU 2013-2014) show that 80% of them are about timeframe required for renewal of passport, issuance of MRP passport, migrant--unfriendly locations of embassies, lack of availability of drinking water, waiting areas, toilet facilities in the embassies and unnecessary repeat visits. In general, labour attaches are blamed for such impersonal services of the embassies. However, all the above services belong to the jurisdiction of Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Institutional interest of Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not allow coordination and partnership among foreign ministry officials and labour attaches in the area of MRP and other above issues. This ultimately results in migrants not receiving basic services from the embassy in an efficient manner. The labour attaches can only work in the areas of workers' dispute, death, repatriation, identification of Bangladeshi citizens in jail etc.
Cumulative effect of reduction in the number of migrants has already become visible in remittance figure. After decades of significant growth of remittance receipts, 2013 saw a significant decline. In 2012, US$14.163 billion was transferred to Bangladesh by its migrant work force. Up to November 2013, Bangladesh received US$12.621 billion as remittance. This is ten percent lower than last year's flow. The effect of negative growth of remittance will be witnessed in both macro and micro economic areas. If the trend continues then it will have a major impact on maintenance of current account surplus, and payment of import bills. Food intake, nutrition, hygiene, education, elderly care--all will be affected in the migrant families. Reduced purchasing capacity of migrant families will affect the local market. Community service and philanthropy towards poor relatives and villagers will also be reduced.
It is not very difficult to locate the causes that are affecting migration and remittance flow from Bangladesh negatively. One of the obvious reasons is the lack of incorporation of migration in a significant way in the ten year long term perspective plan of Bangladesh and failure of 6th five year plan to identify migration as one of the thrust sectors of Bangladesh and allocate resources accordingly. Lack of partnership among Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment (MEWOE) is an important hindrance in exploring labour market, consolidating services to labour migrants in the destination countries and fruitful participation in different global migration forums. Migration governance is a complex phenomenon. It is of great importance to retain functionaries who have attained great knowledge in governing migration over a long period of time. The MEWOE has shown little success in retaining capable government functionaries in its line agency Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training.
The obvious tension between the association of recruiting agencies and MEWOE has thrown the greatest challenge to migration governance in Bangladesh. It is imperative that the government ensures accountability of recruiting agencies in processing recruitment. The majority of stakeholders supported government initiatives of G2G with the aim of reducing cost of migration. Nonetheless, G2G experience of Malaysia has demonstrated that government mechanisms have limitations in pursuing job contracts with employers. It is time for government to rethink and bring in necessary changes in its policy.
In a broader context, for steady development in every economic and social sphere, a country requires political stability. It is the bad luck of the migrants and the nation as a whole that the government and parties in opposition create a new constitutional crisis during each regime that retards the achievements of common people. The migration sector is no exception. While thinking of efficient governance of migration sector in 2014, one has to demand accountability of government and opposition political parties and immediate resolution of unnecessary political crisis.
The writer is Professor of Political Science at the University of Dhaka and Founding Chair, Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU).