Better care for migrants can ensure higher remittance earnings
Abdur Rashid Mia (32) from Narsingdi went to Saudi Arabia in June 2022. However, each step of his journey there was complicated – from getting his passport, to completing his medical check-ups, paying for his tickets and, finally, getting a job. But after completing everything, he left Bangladesh believing that he could positively change the financial condition of his family.
Rashid was not the only one; in 2022, two Bangladeshis left the country every minute to work abroad. The total number of migrant workers who left the country was 11.35 lakh, which is a record for Bangladesh. They all left their homes with the same dream.
Bangladesh is the sixth largest labour-sending country and the eighth in terms of remittance earned. According to the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET) under the Ministry of Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment, more than 12 million Bangladeshis – of which nearly one million are women – have gone abroad as migrant workers in the last five decades, and sent back USD 275 billion remittance earnings in total.
Thanks to them, Bangladesh now has a foreign exchange reserve of more than USD 35 billion, even amidst a crisis. Those migrants have sent USD 21 billion as remittance on average in the last three years, which is 8-10 times higher than the total foreign aid or foreign direct investment (FDI) Bangladesh received. Bangladesh is no longer dependant on foreign aid because of this.
After liberation, Bangladesh was the second poorest country in the world. Five decades later, Bangladesh has become one of the fastest growing economies, with an average growth rate of 6.3 percent over the last decade. Evidently, overseas employment and remittance played a vital role here.
Our migrants have proved time and again that even when most of our other sectors are struggling, their contribution can carry Bangladesh through its darkest times. They have proved this during the global financial crisis of 2008-09, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the dollar crisis that arose due to the Russia-Ukraine war.
But despite their vast contributions, are Bangladeshi migrants getting the respect they deserve? The answer is a resounding, "no."
Instead, they are exploited at home and abroad. The same applies to when they send remittances back to Bangladesh. Even though they are urged to send remittances through the legal channel, hundi traders have been increasingly luring them into using the illegal channel. So, despite the surge in overseas employment, remittance inflow through the official channel dropped to USD 21.28 billion in 2022 from USD 22 billion a year earlier.
The top 11 remittance earning countries for Bangladeshis in 2020-21 were KSA, USA, UAE, UK, Malaysia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Italy, Singapore, and Bahrain. According to data from the Bangladesh Bank, remittance inflow decreased from all of these countries in 2021-22, except for the USA, UK, and Italy.
Most of these countries undoubtedly faced high inflation. Still, the yawning gap in the dollar rates between the informal market and the banking channel was one of the primary reasons for the decrease in remittance inflow.
Bangladeshi migrant workers mostly earn between USD 200-400 a month. When they were getting Tk 93-99 for every dollar through the formal channel, they were getting Tk 110-120 through hundi. If the informal market offers them Tk 10-20 more for every dollar, it is natural for them to prefer it over the official channel. It is evident that the decision to fix the price of the dollar was incorrect. The Association of Bankers Bangladesh (ABB) and Bangladesh Foreign Exchange Authorized Dealers Association (BAFEDA) raised this issue in a meeting with the Bangladesh Bank last November.
After that meeting, it was decided that migrants would get Tk 107 per dollar, which was Tk 99.50 before. Apart from this, banks agreed not to charge any fee for collecting remittances. Besides, it was decided that sending any amount of remittance from abroad will not require any documentation.
These were positive decisions. But migrants also take other considerations into account when sending money. For example, they consider how quickly it can be sent to their families, how easy the process is, etc. And so, unless these issues are addressed, it will be difficult to prevent them from preferring the use of hundi.
Better care and services for migrant workers, along with some special incentives can increase remittances or even double it. So, the banks need to get closer to them or develop special digital services and products targeting migrants.
It needs to be asked what facilities do migrants get for sending remittances for 10-20 years. Do they get any pension schemes? Is there any One-Stop Centre for migrants to invest in Bangladesh? What benefits do their family members get? There are no satisfactory answers to these questions.
Many migrants and their family members are not within the reach of banking services. Though there are more than 10 million migrants abroad, many don't even have a bank account. The government can make it mandatory for them to open a bank account before leaving the country.
Banks here can promote the opening of two accounts, one for sending money to their families and the other to save for the migrants themselves. They can also introduce various saving schemes for migrants. The government can also introduce pension allowance for migrants, from which they can benefit once they return after 10-20 years.
The government can provide other benefits to migrants. For example, they can introduce a special admission quota in schools and colleges for their children, or give them medical incentives.
The government can also take more initiatives to honour and recognise migrant workers. In addition to that, the sending of skilled workers abroad should be prioritised. This should be prioritised after the Covid-19 pandemic and due to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which has drastically increased the demand for skilled workers. We also need to explore new markets, while not losing our focus on the old ones.
Overall, we must focus on ensuring good governance in the migration sector. The sector is still plagued by a number of problems. Before migration, migrants have to deal with recruiting agencies – some of which turn out to be fraudulent – intermediaries, inaccurate information regarding jobs, purchasing and selling of visas at high prices, the issue of obtaining government clearance, etc. But even that is not the end of it.
Once migrants reach their destinations, they often face harassment, exploitation, abuse, have to take on inhumane workloads, live in difficult conditions, and even risk their lives.
The government has indeed taken various positive initiatives in the field of migration, but there is still a long way to go. But before everything else, we must understand that migrants are not money-making machines; they are human beings, just like us. They deserve dignity and better care, which will ultimately help increase remittance for the country.