Bangladesh has big achievements, five decades into its independence. Alongside the rise of the readymade garment industry, cricket reaching international standards and the income of over 10 million expatriate Bangladeshis are at the forefront of the achievements. There are ups and downs in the first two, but Bangladesh’s dependence on the prospects of migrant workers has become sustainable.
There are around 130 countries in the world where their entire population is below 10 million. On the flip side, over 10 million Bangladeshis are earning wages abroad. Bangladesh is among the top five to six countries in context of global migrant workers. This is the achievement of the country's indomitable youth. But what has the state given to these youths? Time has come to take account.
Woes of expatriates demand close inquiry
COVID-19 has nakedly exposed the attitude of the Bangladesh society and the state towards migrant workers. We have called them golden geese. We have encouraged them to send back more dollars. Two per cent incentive has been offered on the inflow remittance. But we didn’t hesitate to humiliate them by hoisting red flags on their houses during the pandemic. At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, many returnee migrants have been victims of extortion back home.
The condition of migrants who recently returned from Vietnam is more tragic. The returned migrants, who were cheated abroad and sought help from the Bangladesh embassy, ultimately landed in jail in their own country. Not only the Vietnamese returnees, the migrants who returned from the Middle East countries in July, were also badly harassed.
It is said the expatriates have tarnished the image of the country. But there are no details of how the youth are 'tarnishing' the image of the country, selling their land and property, and leaving behind their families to go abroad to work. They go abroad with clearance certificates from the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET). Is there any system to verify the company where they are going to work, before the delivery of these certificates? Are the Bangladesh embassies at the respective countries consulted? A deep analysis of these questions is now the demand of the day.
Returnee migrants under mental stress
Around 400,000 migrants are in trouble during the coronavirus pandemic, according to media reports.
In the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, around 200,000 migrant workers came home on leave, but they could not return to their workplaces.
Despite completing all procedures, around 100,000 new workers could not go to their destination countries. Besides, around 100,000 more migrants returned home between April and August.
On average 2,000 migrant workers have been returning home everyday, according to a Prothom Alo report published on 2 September. Six to seven per cent of them are female migrants.
Expatriates sent about two billion dollars on an average in June-July amid the devastating coronavirus outbreak. They sent over 18 billion dollars in 2019. In the previous year the amount was about 16 billion dollars.
There are more tragic incidents. According to BRAC, 1,377 Bangladeshis died from coronavirus till 5 July abroad. Around 60,000-70,000 migrants have been infected. Before these deaths, they contributed to their economy. The state has responsibility to do something for these people and their families. The state has also responsibility for those who returned home in good health.
Millions of people now solvent due to remittance
Expatriates sent about two billion dollars on an average in June-July amid the devastating coronavirus outbreak. They sent over 18 billion dollars in 2019. In the previous year the amount was about 16 billion dollars. Not only the families of expatriates are benefited from this money but also the foreign exchange reserve has been boosted. The contribution of the expatriates’ money to the national income is 6 per cent. Around 40 to 50 million people are directly benefited by the income of the expatriates.
Thousands of families depend on the money of the expatriates every month. They will lose all comforts once they cannot receive this money. In a study, it is found that the main source of income of the 57 per cent of such families is the man working abroad.
The government is able to show these families solvent in official documents due to the hard labour of the men of these families. What are we doing for them? What is our long term plan for them?
In this regard, the example of India and Pakistan is noteworthy. Both are our competitors in the job market of Middle East. India observes Expatriates’ Day every year to inspire and encourage the expatriates. They are very attentive in coordinating the activities of their embassies regarding the problems and crises of expatriates in different countries. The country is very serious to raise their existing inflow remittance to over 80 billion. The target of India is not only to earn dollars, they also want to use their expats to increase global influence.
Imran Khan of Pakistan keeps special watch on this sector. They have stood by the unemployed people by launching job portals online to provide various kinds of assistance, including finding jobs during the coronavirus outbreak. Another pledge of Imran Khan is to bring expatriates under the voting system. The voice of expatriates will be stronger in politics if they are brought under the votting system.
It is necessary to increase the participation of expatriates in politics to place their issues of interest to the elected representatives. For this, voting rights is a good alternative. This is a demand of the expatriate Bangladeshis.
The victims of human trafficking are being called criminals. As a result the actual criminals are able to continue their criminal activities
The pandemic globally affected the migrant workers of all the countries. However, the responsibility of the destination countries for workers is being shifted to the source country. Bangladesh along with India and Pakistan can become up and doing in the Middle East to utilise the international laws to ensure rights of expatriates.
Cheated in jail, cheaters at large
It has recently been noticed that the crisis of medical facilities is a big problem for expatriates. Hard work, isolation from their families and mental stress make them sick. They work even when they are unwell, just to send money back home. It is difficult to survive for long in this way. The rate of deaths among the expatriates is very high. A total of 3,658 dead bodies have arrived in 2019. That is, ten bodies arrive every day. The number is 28,000 in the last decade.
Ailing migrant workers are also returning home. Special hospitals are necessary in each division for all expatriates both sick and healthy. This is a demand of the expatriates. Considering their contribution to the economy, a small investment is required to implement their demand. Coronavirus has brought forward the necessity of this investment.
Before the pandemic, around 600,000-700,000 Bangladeshis would go abroad for work. But that is halted. Even if the situation becomes normal, the world economy says it will take time for the labour market to become normal. There is a fear of shrinking labour markets due to falling of oil prices in the Middle East countries. As a result, an alternative initiative is needed to rehabilitate and create employment for expatriates.
Those who stayed abroad for long acquire special skills. With their skills, if they get some capital assistance they can contribute to the economy when they come back home. In this regard, demands are raised to establish some regional industries.
Middlemen are the main cause of harassment for expatriates. The devastating situation of Vietnamese returnees is due to the middlemen. The work the migrants were promised was not given. But Tk 400,000 has been taken from each of them. Such cheating is taking place every day. But the cheated are taken to jail while the cheaters remain at large. The victims of human trafficking are being called criminals. As a result the actual criminals are able to continue their criminal activities. Joint monitoring by the government and the recruiting agents can resolve this problem.
It is imperative to stop women trafficking and harassment of female migrants abroad. Female migrants are at high risk during coronavirus. Old problems like torture and sexual abuse also remain.
The first decision has to be made as to whether we will treat the expatriates as ‘heroes’ or ‘villains’. If we treat them as heroes, we have to stand by them with green flags, not red ones
The government alone cannot tackle this problem without the cooperation of those who are sending migrant workers abroad. But the cooperation has to be ensured within the legal framework. Decades of experience makes it clear that there is a crisis of good governance in the overseas employment sector. The structural and legal system has to be strengthened to make the private recruiting agencies accountable.
Expatriates’ interests need to be priority at the embassies
Ninety per cent of the expatriates would not go abroad if they find decent work with fair wages in their home country. They spend huge amounts of money and go abroad in an uncertain environment leaving behind their families due to employment problems in the country. From the labour ministry, the expatriate’s welfare ministry was created about two decades ago to stand by them. The type of workplace of the expatriates is such that only the expatriates’ welfare ministry cannot ensure their safety abroad. The ministry needs to maintain close and round the clock coordination with Bangladesh embassies. This has to be priority in the embassies. What should be the national duty rather than to tend to the needs of expatriates who are the main source of income?
Like other economic sectors in the world, the labour market and the labour economy are always changeable. The fate of this market depends on regional geopolitics, climate change and internal situations in different countries. It is urgent to keep watch on the nature of the international labour market and regularly coordinate with the country’s foreign policy. The main source of our labour market is the Middle East. Historic ups and downs has started there. Strained relations have cropped up among Iran, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia and it is necessary to keep watch. Quick steps have to be taken considering the interest of expatriates and the prospective labour market.
Time has come to repay the expatriates
Before the outbreak of coronavirus, 2000 Bangladeshis would go abroad for work daily. It is uncertain when normalcy will return. The migrants, who have survived coronavirus infection and were forced to return home, expect government support.
This support needs to be provided to sustain the national inflow of dollars. But the first decision has to be made as to whether we will treat the expatriates as ‘heroes’ or ‘villains’. If we treat them as heroes, we have to stand by them with green flags, not red ones.
*This article, originally published in Prothom Alo both in print and online editions, has been rewritten in English by Rabiul Islam.