Build­ing from Abroad

Bangladesh’s mi­grant pop­u­la­tion seem to be its life­line to sus­tain­able devel­op­ment.

Southasia - - Contents - By Ta­hera Sa­jid

The de­mand for hu­man la­bor in the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity due to eco­nomic glob­al­iza­tion en­sures a con­stant flow of mi­grant work­ers, es­pe­cially from de­vel­op­ing coun­tries. Bangladeshi work­ers have also long availed the op­por­tu­nity of work­ing abroad to not only sta­bi­lize their per­sonal fi­nances but also sup­port devel­op­ment ef­forts within Bangladesh, one of the most pop­u­lous na­tions in the world, mak­ing it a ma- jor man­power ex­porter in the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

Tra­di­tion­ally, Bangladeshi mi­grant work­ers have cho­sen des­ti­na­tions in the Mid­dle East, South-East Asia and some West­ern coun­tries. As fig­ures from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statis­tics (BBS 2010) show, the num­ber of mi­grants from 1976 to 2009 was 5.5 mil­lion. Ac­cord­ing to the World Bank 2010 report, the main di­rec­tion of this out­flow is to Mid­dle East­ern coun­tries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emi­rates, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, and Qatar. Per­cent­age-wise, this amounts to about 70% of the Bangladeshi mi­grant worker pop­u­la­tion, with Saudi Arabia host­ing al­most half of them. Sin­ga­pore and Malaysia also claim a con­sid­er­able share. Bangladeshi mi­grants to West­ern coun­tries like the United States, the United King­dom and Canada are more per­ma­nent set­tlers from ur­ban and mid­dle-class back­grounds, rather than con­tract la­bor­ers.

Prior to 2003, the Bangladeshi mi­grant worker pop­u­la­tion showed much gen­der dis­par­ity. Due to se­ri­ous con­cerns raised about the mis­treat­ment of women work­ers as vic­tims of sex­ual ex­ploita­tion and hu­man traf­fick­ing in host coun­tries, the Bangladeshi government placed a ban on their mi­gra­tion. Con­se­quently, they made up less than 1% of the worker out­flow. How­ever, eco­nomic pres­sures forced the government of Bangladesh to lift the ban in 2007 and, within one year, the fig­ure for fe­male mi­grants spiked to 5% of the to­tal. This step was aimed at em­pow­er­ing Bangladeshi women and was ap­plauded by women’s rights or­ga­ni­za­tions around the world.

Un­for­tu­nately, the safety con­cern of both male and fe­male work­ers re­mains un­ad­dressed. One ma­jor con­tribut­ing fac­tor is that Bangladesh has not rat­i­fied the 1990 UN Con­ven­tion on the Pro­tec­tion of the Rights of All

Mi­grant Work­ers and Mem­bers of their Fam­i­lies. Although a sig­na­tory to the con­ven­tion, the Bangladeshi government has re­sisted rat­i­fi­ca­tion for fear of jeop­ar­diz­ing the ac­tive re­cruit­ment of its ci­ti­zens and the re­sult­ing loss of po­ten­tial ben­e­fits to its econ­omy. Many hu­man rights groups have crit­i­cized the government for not do­ing enough to up­hold the rights of work­ers and their fam­i­lies de­spite their huge con­tri­bu­tion to the coun­try’s econ­omy.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2009 na­tional sur­vey con­ducted by the In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Mi­gra­tion in Bangla- desh, an­other im­por­tant area of con­cern for mi­grant work­ers is the high cost of mov­ing abroad. This is largely due to a col­lu­sion be­tween cor­rupt busi­nesses, re­cruiters and government of­fi­cials. Forced by an in­abil­ity to fi­nance their trip and find alternative ar­range­ments, work­ers give in to prom­ises of cost-ef­fec­tive pro­cess­ing of pa­pers and ob­tain il­le­gal fal­si­fied doc­u­ments, most of­ten un­know­ingly. Th­ese un­doc­u­mented work­ers are at­trac­tive to em­ploy­ers look­ing for cheap la­bor and zero li­a­bil­ity but carry huge po­ten­tial for forced la­bor, debt bondage, ex­ploita­tion, sex­ual abuse and hu­man traf­fick­ing. To pro­vide max­i­mum ben­e­fits to the econ­omy and so­cial sec­tor, this wide­spread cor­rup­tion and ex­ploita­tion needs to be ef­fec­tively cur­tailed.

The im­por­tance of re­mit­tances can­not be em­pha­sized enough for a de­vel­op­ing coun­try like Bangladesh, as var­i­ous devel­op­men­tal stud­ies sug­gest. Re­mit­tances have emerged as the key driver for eco­nomic growth in Bangladesh. This of­ten serves as a more sta­ble form of in­vest­ment than for­eign aid or even for­eign in­vest­ment. In­ter­na­tional devel­op­ment or­ga­ni­za­tions, such as the In­ter­na­tional La­bor Or­ga­ni­za­tion (ILO), In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund (IMF), World Bank and the Asian De­velop- ment Bank ( ADB), are in­creas­ingly cit­ing mi­grants’ re­mit­tances as a tool to pro­mote devel­op­ment, though the ef­fec­tive­ness of th­ese de­pends on how re­mit­tances are uti­lized, whether in con­sumer mar­kets, sav­ings or in­vest­ment in ed­u­ca­tion, health­care, busi­nesses, etc. What­ever the case may be, th­ese re­mit­tances have cer­tainly helped Bangladesh im­prove its in­ter­na­tional credit rat­ing, which forms the ba­sis for, and brings in, in­vestor trust and con­fi­dence in trans­ac­tions at in­ter­na­tional lev­els.

A heavy drain to the to­tal es­ti­mated in­flow of re­mit­tances is the use of unof­fi­cial chan­nels. Sev­eral mi­cros­tud­ies in Bangladesh have shown that only half of the re­mit­tances are sent through of­fi­cial chan­nels and the rest through unof­fi­cial means. To en­cour­age us­age of for­mal chan­nels, the Min­istry of Ex­pa­tri­ates’ Wel­fare and Overseas Em­ploy­ment ( EWOE) has been set up and is work­ing to pro­vide a sys­tem of ef­fi­cient man­age­ment of the mi­gra­tion sec­tor.

De­spite this is­sue, of­fi­cial re­mit­tances to Bangladesh made it the eighth largest re­mit­tance-re­cip­i­ent coun­try in the world in 2010, ac­cord­ing to World Bank MRF 2011. Re­mit­tances amounted to more than US$11 bil­lion, rep­re­sent­ing 13% of the Gross Domestic Prod­uct. In 1976-77, mi­grant work­ers contributed US$49 mil­lion, which grew to US$9,689 mil­lion in 2008-2009. The global re­ces­sion in 2008-2009 af­fected the num­ber of mi­grants from Bangladesh, as did the po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity in the Mid­dle East, but of­fi­cial government fig­ures showed that re­mit­tance in­flows dur­ing that time were still higher than the level of for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment and the to­tal for­eign aid re­ceived. Care­ful anal­y­sis by var­i­ous devel­op­ment agen­cies re­vealed that the re­turn­ing mi­grants from the Mid­dle East were more in­clined to bring their sav­ings back home, while those who chose to stay sent their earn­ings home in­stead of risk­ing life sav­ings to po­lit­i­cal un­pre­dictabil­ity.

The mi­gra­tion of Bangladeshi skilled, semi-skilled and un­skilled work­ers is quite di­verse in terms of des­ti­na­tions and the ben­e­fits from their la­bor are also man­i­fold. There is much room for im­prove­ment in how the flow of this im­por­tant source of in­come may be man­aged to in­crease the mu­tual ben­e­fit to in­di­vid­u­als and the wider so­ci­ety. Most im­por­tantly, this in­cludes pro­vid­ing pro­tec­tion to the mi­grant work­ers at home and abroad be­fore ex­pect­ing any re­turn ben­e­fit from them.

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