OVERSEAS employment has become a major livelihood opportunity for thousands of low skilled laborers in Bangladesh. Since 1976, more than 1.1 million people left Bangladesh for overseas employment through official channel. The number of migrant workers through unofficial channel may be more than the official numbers. The Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training data shows that 1,008,525 Bangladeshi migrant workers travelled abroad with hope and aim to change their future in 2017. In the last fiscal year, 82 per cent migrant workers travelled to eight different Middle Eastern countries and about 15 per cent went to South East Asian countries. In recent times, the number of women seeking overseas employment is also increasing. Women migrant workers constituted 12.08 per cent (121,925 women and girls) of the total migrants in 2017.
In 2017, Bangladeshi migrant workers sent approximately BDT 1,102,470 million (US$13 billion) in remittances, which is 7.24 per cent of the country’s GDP and around 40 per cent of the foreign currency reserve. During the same year, the government earned BDT 554.68 million (US$ 6.93 million) as revenue from emigration clearance services and received BDT 3,529.83 million (US$ 44.12 million) from migrant workers as wage earners welfare fees. However, government’s programmes to protect and ensure the rights of the migrant workers are inadequate.
Government’s commitment and actions
THE government of Bangladesh recognises the contribution of its migrant workers to the country’s development in different policy documents. In the Vision 2021, the election manifesto of the political party in power, migrants’ contributions are considered and their concerns are shown as policy priority. Therefore, the 6th and 7th Five Year Plan (FY2010-FY2020) has given clear policy direction to three areas in relation to labour migration: (i) regulate the migration sector, (ii) ensure protection and welfare of migrant workers, and (iii) develop more skilled and efficient human resources. The government, with the aim of implementing that policy decisions has adopted the Overseas Employment and Migrants Act in 2013 and upgraded the Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment Policy in 2016. In migrant labour related policy, it has committed to establish a ‘Rights based Protection System’ for migrant workers.
The ministry of expatriate welfare and overseas employment allocated only 1.64 per cent of the total budget (BDT 4,500,000 / US$ 56,250) of FY2016-2017 for development programnes. In addition, there was an allocation of BDT 47,950,000 (US$ 599,375) to cover salaries, administrative and operational costs of 17 government employees based in destination countries — who serve five million onsite migrant workers in eight Gulf countries. However, this budgetary allocation does not cover any direct support or assistance to vulnerable migrant workers.
The Wage Earners Welfare Board data (available) shows that, in 2017, BDT 1,025.77 million(US$ 14.07 million) was spent on dead body transportation, burial costs, and financial grants to the families of deceased migrant workers. Welfare fees have supported 2,658 children of migrant workers to access education (BDT 25,059,600/US$ 313,245). It has also supported critically sick migrant workers to access healthcare, and maintained the operation of three safe houses in two Gulf countries to assist vulnerable women migrant workers.
Gaps and Challenges
BANGLADESHI migrant workers pay extremely high migration fees, most of which are only possible by selling land or taking high interest loans. A realistic recruitment cost and mechanism to ensure safe migration is still not in place. In addition, migrant workers have to pay the government to issue clearance for overseas jobs. In return, the government gives no incentives — there is no special scheme or safety net programme for returnee migrant workers and no structural response to ensure healthcare of migrant workers who fell ill. The government does not provide adequate protection and welfare services for migrant workers. This has the potential to cause a huge social and financial burden on Bangladesh in the near future.
Future steps and budgetary considerations
GIVEN the economic contribution of the migrant workers, migrant workers rights originations, particularly OKUP, are asking the government to allocate necessary budget to the migration sector, as it does for apparel industrial sector. Through their works and advocacy programmes certain areas are identified for budgetary considerations.
The government must consider allocations for ‘Government Paid Migration’ for better regulation of the recruitment process. Instead of burdening workers, it must pay recruitment and welfare fees instead of migrant workers. They must provide free-of-cost services to get ‘manpower clearance’ for overseas employment. The ‘Government Paid Migration’ will reduce high migration cost, visa trading, deception and fraud that usually happen during the recruitment process. More importantly, it will prevent workers from incurring huge debt.
The government must increase number of labour wings in destination countries and ensure adequate human resources for them. The government must resource these labour wings in accordance with the side of migrant workers in respective destination countries so that workers get access to immediate and appropriate services. It is necessary for the government to allocate proper budget for the improvement of protection and welfare of migrant workers abroad.
The concerned ministry must take organisational and structural measures so that sick and suffering migrant workers get special health care in government hospitals free-of-cost. In addition, it hould have a ringfenced allocation for financial cooperation for their rehabilitation.
In addition what have been mentioned above, the Government must declare a special safety net programme for the most vulnerable migrant workers, particularly women who often return being deceived, abused and exploited. In order to ensure steady remittance inflow, the government must ensure and protect the rights of migrant workers.
Shakirul Islam is a social researcher, activists on migrants’ rights issues, and the founding chairman of OKUP, a grassroots migrants’ organisation.