The manpower export sector is at a crossroads of immense opportunities and challenges that it has never experienced before. New markets have already opened up, or are opening up, or waiting due approach from us to open up. The resistance of the developed countries to cross-border mobility of labour is not paying off for them.
The basic principle of labour as a factor in production cannot be wished away. Faced with ever worsening demographic imbalance -- that churns out more and more senior citizens than working age people -- and resultant mounting social security, costs are blunting the edge of competence in the production of goods and services in the developed countries.
Their economic fortresses are not able to withstand the onslaught of labour-competent economies like China, India, and other emerging Asian tigers. These Asian countries are virtually pushing the developed countries off the global market of consumer goods and also services. Their hunger for labour will further intensify if they have to succumb to demands of withdrawal of farm subsidies in the stalled WTO negotiations. In that case, they can repair the damage to a great extent only by taking labourers from countries like ours.
They are coming out the conservative fold due economic compulsions. The symptoms are showing up. Australia is gobbling up our lower-grade students at great speed, absorbing them by granting residence permits in due time. Even a xenophobic country like Japan is taking workers from other countries as trainee industrial workers.
Bangladesh is getting the approaches that point to surging opportunities. The developed countries are expressing interest in tuning our human resources to their needs by offering funded training. TAFE by Australia is an example. Now is the time of all the times to pursue a manpower export regime that can steer our country out of poverty in the shortest time, easily and at with a low investment. Fortunately, this trade now, under this government, is still free from damaging tentacles.
The theory that if we really focus on manpower export as a tool for poverty alleviation we will succeed in no time, looks like a dream-path to economic emancipation for the country. Yes, it is! But does the existing scenario look enabling enough? Not at all. The entire manpower export regime hinges on distorted perceptions and wrong alignment of responsibilities by the government, media, civil society, law enforcers, and even the members of the trade themselves.
At the same time, public perception of the manpower trade is not wholesome, to say the least, and the same notion prevails about every element in the government machinery, especially its law enforcing agencies. Add to this the continual demonising of manpower agents by the media and civil society, knowingly and unknowingly.
Oblivious of the true contexts of the issues, of the innumerable variables, external and internal, influencing the trade and pushing up migration cost beyond all proportion, of the flawed legal frameworks, and of the persisting intransparencies and incongruities, the people perceive recruiting agents as demons sucking the blood of innocent and gullible job-seekers.
Our seminar-savvy intellectuals never miss a chance of bashing "unscrupulous" recruiting agents. Our seminar culture is such that you will find similar faces in almost every seminar, be it on environment, traffic congestion, trafficking, human resource, globalisation, nuclear proliferation, price spiral, river erosion, floods and what not. No need to have in-depth knowledge of the debated issue.
The safest route for such stalwart seminar personalities is to gather negative elements from other speakers and articulate such negativity resoundingly, bashing the government policy makers and other stakeholders. The recent focus is on donors, especially IMF and WB, as if they are forcing us to accept their prescriptions at gun-point. And the NGOs: the more they paint a grave picture of the country, the more is the flow of funds from sympathetic donors.
These misconceptions are damaging the most important sector of the economy, stalling its much greater potential. Its great contributions to the national economy by finding jobs for 7 lac unemployed youths this year, its $ 6 billion remittances, plus almost equal inflow through hundi (that does not increase the foreign exchange reserve, but adds to gross national income), its multiplier effect in every facet of economy, its enabling the government to be choosy in selecting donors' prescriptions, the immense resilience it has given to the nation to face any calamity, the dreams that it offers the nation, etc., do not seem to go down well either with the future generation or with the civil society.
An example is PRSP, designed by stalwart economists at the behest of the donors, that has totally sidelined migration as a tool for poverty alleviation. Had there not been the healthy flow of remittances, our civil society and business community might not have dared a loggerhead stance against World Bank and IMF. Remember the foreign currency crunch in the early days of the last BNP government. The then finance minister had to rush to Paris begging for loan from donor consortium, but they chose not to budge a single inch.
The respite came from our invaluable expatriates, the end product of "unscrupulous" recruiting agents. On an appeal from the finance minister, they beefed up remittances and saved the country from ignominious failure to foot immediate import bills. But, unfortunately, with every change of government, and triggered by negative notions and huge transaction of public money in this sector, immediate attacks come against this trade.
Enthused by signals from higher-ups, the underlings of the law-enforcing agencies are on the prowl to get hold of manpower agents. And they have very easy legal handles to do so, on which issue I will dwell on at a later opportunity.
Presently, the major irritant in manpower export is the continuous crisis popping up in Malaysia. Without missing a day, our print and/or electronic media is replete with the stories of horrendous incidents of stranded workers in Malaysia, of breached contracts, of unpaid remuneration, of disgraceful living conditions, and of brawls between hunger-striking workers and goons of recruiting agents in High Commission premises.
To add fuel to that, occasional Bangladeshi intellectual-ish gentlemen transiting through Kuala Lumpur Airport, and imbibed by civic responsibilities, discharge their duties by taking movies of the supposedly stranded workers loitering in airport lounges. Back home, they complete the civic responsibility by supplying the films to the negative-news-hungry electronic media, who jump to the opportunity and relate the stories as if "hell is let loose."
While not disputing the veracity, I would point out that due to time taking checking of fingerprints of arriving recruits and frequent flight delays by airlines, especially Biman, it is not unusual for a worker to remain stranded for more than 48 hours. More so, because the employer's presence, to receive the workers, is mandatory.
To solve this recurring problem, from September 1, the Malaysian immigration has made arrangement to shift the gathering workers from the main terminal to a nearby building thrice daily (10 AM, 3 PM and 7 PM). Workers' clearance will be done in the new building, which has sleeping berths, and they are advised to carry along some dried food.
The tenor of my writing is not in support of the recruiting agents, though I happen to be a member of the trade, nor in support of what is happening. The primary documents a recruiting agent needs for selecting the workers is the host government's approval, allowing the employer to employ Bangladeshi workers, and a demand letter issued by the employer to the recruiting agent, specifying job description and other terms of contract, which is verified and authenticated by Bangladesh High Commission in KL.
So, a recruiting agency acts on documents vetted by the governments of the receiving and sending countries; and he is duty bound to explain the exact job description and other terms clearly and categorically to the recruit. Any deviation is an offence under Emigration Ordinance 1982. The true story is otherwise.
Disobedience of this basic tenet is rampant. Workers supposedly meant for factory work are being sent to work in plantations or construction sites. Big agents, handling thousands of workers, hardly find it convenient to interact directly with workers and explain the job and terms. The usual contact person is a sub-agent, who has a vested interest in giving exaggerated and rosy pictures to the recruit. Result: shattered dreams and agitation. Such deviations by the recruiting agents must be stringently dealt with.
The other part of the story, breach of legitimate contract by the employer, is much more crucial and formidable than the offences perpetrated by the recruiting agents. Forcing the recruiting agents to rush to Malaysia to resolve problems is not a solution. It is not at all in the capacity of any recruiting agent to compel an errant Malaysian employer to obey the terms of the contract. He can only request and appeal, or perhaps do minor troubleshooting.
Neither is it directly in the hands of our mission in KL. The solution lies squarely with Malaysian government alone, and since they have given permission to their nationals to recruit foreign nationals to work for them, the Malaysian government is duty-bound to ensure that the employer keeps his part of the bargain.
The matter demands formal placement of issues with appropriate Malaysian authorities, if necessary at the highest level. It is in the interest of both the countries. Our urge to export manpower is certainly matched by the equally forceful need of labour service providers by the receiving country. There is no point in faltering. Malaysia is an excellent brotherly country for Bangladesh.
A reason-based dialogue will certainly have results which will be beneficial to both the countries. The persisting irritations are not conducive to the image of either country.
Mr. Abdul Alim is a recruiting agent.