Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, while speaking at a reception of Bangladesh community arranged by the Bangladesh Embassy in UAE at a hotel in Abu Dhabi on 27 October 2014, termed the expatriate Bangladeshis as the 'Golden children of Bangladesh', and urged them to refrain from doing anything which could tarnish the image of their country abroad. The premier is right! The expatriate Bangladeshis are our golden children who create golden opportunities for our country. But their stories are not always golden.
The expatriate Bangladeshis are usually known as 'Non-resident Bangladeshi' (NRB). NRB embodies both the expatriate Bangladeshis permanently living in foreign countries as economic migrants and the emigrant workers working on temporary overseas employment. Those who are living permanently for generations are the immigrant communities. They have formed ethnic minority societies known as Bangladeshi Diaspora. Therefore, they can better be called members of Bangladeshi Diaspora, while the temporary ones may be called emigrant or expatriate workers. Both the factions of expatriate Bangladeshis are far away from their homeland, and working in the host-lands spread over the globe with a view to earning a fortune. They are earning foreign currency by the sweat of their brow, and sending remittances to their nearest and dearest. The migrant workers are sending remittances more than the Diaspora members, and the latter are making some investments too. But the amount of foreign remittance is nearly nine times larger than the direct foreign investment. Both the migrant workers and the Diaspora members, however, are by one way or another contributing to Bangladesh's national economy by enhancing foreign exchange revenue. It is really an amazing fact that the expatriate workforce sector is the second largest source of our foreign exchange earnings, with garments manufacturing industry being the first. But the garments manufacturing industry is passing through such tumultuous times that migrant manpower industry can easily beat it in the foreseeable future. The foreign remittances constitute one third of the country's total foreign currency savings. This huge reserve greatly contributes to our GDP and thereby places less reliance on foreign aid.
Millions of Bangladeshis are living and working abroad. The exact number of the Bangladeshi Diaspora members scattered around the globe is difficult to ascertain. But a ballpark estimate of the migrant workers can be determined. It is nearly six millions, out of which about a half is working in the Middle East and the Gulf states. According to a World Bank statistics, more than 40 per cent of the Bangladeshi expatriate workers are working in Saudi Arabia, 16 per cent in United Arab Emirates, 10 per cent in Kuwait, 10 per cent in the United Kingdom and the rest are scattered around the world. The amount of foreign remittance per year is more than 10 billion US dollars on average, and it is growing by 8.62 per cent in this year (2014). This amount could be no less than double if the money remitted through the unauthorised channels and brought in cash is taken into account. In 2014, the country is expected to receive $15.05 billion and retain the eighth position among top ten remittance-earning countries. More than 60 per cent of the total remittance is coming from the Middle East and the Gulf states. All this is, however, a conservative estimate.
The migrant workers are being sent mostly by private recruiting agencies and social networks. Statistics show that 60 per cent of them move on their own, 39 per cent through the private recruiters and merely one percent by the government. In last couple of years, despite the wholesale global recession, more than one million workers have been sent to one hundred and thirty two countries in the world. Although a few are appointed to white-collar jobs, most of them are recruited as odd jobbers.
Since the demand for low-skill workers is increasing in some countries of the Middle East and South East Asia, the prospects of Bangladesh labour export enterprise may well be booming provided, of course, it is properly taken care of. As workers, the Bangladeshis have, by now, earned for themselves quite a good name. The unemployed youth who idled away their times in their home country are now putting their shoulders to the wheel in the host countries for making money.
The migrant communities are motivated entirely by self-interest to grit their teeth and carry on the odd jobs through myriad hardships. As ethnic minorities, they are driven by a work ethic. We can see the inflow of remittances sent by them, but we cannot see the pains they undergo in the alien lands. They sometimes try to give an appearance of being happy burying their sighs, but their life is in a very sorry state. They are just surviving with hope against hope. So in order to ensure the prospects for this industry, we badly need to address ourselves to the problems that underlie it and try to resolve them. This is one of the most substantive issues that call for serious attention.
In the first instance, the government should make more inclusive strategies and a broader vision about the non-resident Bangladeshis as a whole. There should be a down-to-earth Diaspora strategy and an expatriate working community development plan followed by effective and inexhaustible actions. This will first diagnose the nature and extent of the actual and potential problems lying in the whole shebang of NRB affairs, and try to work out the solutions in deadly earnest through pragmatic ways and diplomatic means. The concerned embassies can play a pivotal role in this regard. But our elite embassy-officials are still steeped in the colonial hangover and are given to giving people the cold shoulder. In the Middle East and Malaysia, our embassy men are reportedly to blame for being too much unsupportive to the migrant workers compared to their opposite numbers. So, in selecting the ambassador and other officials especially for countries where we have either existing expatriate workers or manpower export possibilities, the government should be very careful. They should select the ones who are good career advisors and have great tact and diplomatic leverage. They can better protect the migrant community interests by maintaining close relations with the host countries, and thereby can create a win-win situation for furthering the prospects of overseas job-market. This has been a matter of great urgency in the present state of affairs when the outflow of migrant workers is on the wane due to global economic depression and other reasons.
Together with the low and semi-skilled manpower, the skilled and high skilled manpower should be encouraged, and the unskilled ones should be deprecated to go abroad. A skilled worker can earn four times more than an unskilled or a low-skilled worker. Besides, the unskilled workers usually get no fixed jobs. They remain ill-paid and often bear the fortunes of drifters or live on charity. The miseries of expatriate life are worst suffered by them. These sorts of unskilled odd jobbers should be replaced by workers with vocational skills. There is a growing demand for doctors, nurses, paramedics, engineers, technicians, teachers, management executives, and service sector experts. India, China, Korea, Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan are meeting this demand more successfully than Bangladesh. Bangladesh should keep abreast of the said countries' Diaspora programmes and devise its own in a more effective way.
To cater to the needs of the global job market, our job-seekers must be fully equipped for overseas career. Adequate vocational training and guidance should be imparted to them both at home and abroad. In addition, they should have computer literacy and at least a smattering of the language of the host country and a sense of compliance with their laws and culture. A cautionary note may be mentioned here that the offenders should by no means be allowed to fly to the foreign countries slipping through the net.
The government and private recruiting agencies should focus on securing technical jobs in the existing markets in the old destinations on one hand, and on exploring pastures new in the developed countries on the other.
The sending of remittances through informal banking channels and spending of remittances on family expenses or conspicuous consumption are big hurdles on the way to economic development. The remitters should be warned against the informal channels and the overseas capital should be utilised most effectively. The hard-earned foreign currencies should be put to the productive or developmental uses like small family-run business and enterprise, which can easily turn out nice little earners. In addition, the remitters and their family should be well aware of different foreign currency investment facilities and bond instruments conducted by different banks and financial organisations.
The NRBs, especially the Diaspora members can greatly contribute to the economic development of their home country through direct investment and transnational entrepreneurship. They are very much intent on investing in local industries. Bangladesh is one of the most suitable places for cost minimising and profit maximising ventures. Productions can be made here on the lowest possible wages. But their enthusiasm is dampened by the setbacks like social unrest and political instability caused by the social and political weapons like obstructions and strikes which hinder the smooth process of shipment and export. The entrepreneurs are also deterred by the perennial energy crisis. So, to woo the NRB investors and potential others, the government should provide a safe working environment and a fairly adequate infrastructure as far as reasonably practicable. There should be separate economic zones or industrial parks for the NRB investors. The concerned ministry should be invigorated to extend all out services to the non-resident Bangladeshis as a whole to make the best economic use of the remittances they send and investments they make, and thereby to build a strong Diaspora network.
Bangladesh has brighter prospects for economic development through manpower export industry for quite obvious reasons. The calling for working abroad is increasingly attracting the new generation who are taking it as a good career move. The recruiting agents have affirmed that good progress has been made in the inflow of quality manpower, and hence the country's foreign currency earning has increased in recent times despite the steep decline in the inflow quantity. Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies too reassures that manpower export is likely to grow again in keeping with the resumption of the global economic upturn. The government seems to have a far-reaching plan for making the overseas employment industry a very big foreign exchange earner. They have planned to earn USD 31.40 million in the Financial Year 2014-15 and hugely budgeted for its implementation. Teams are being sent to explore fresh manpower markets. Bangladesh has also signed the UN convention on the protection of migrants' rights passed in 1990 as one of the top labour exporting nations in the world.
The government should, however, maintain a balance in the influx of Bangladeshi migrant workers by giving more advantages to the insolvent man-folks from the country's backward regions with a view to widening economic advancement throughout the country. They should essentially reduce the migration costs through safer institutional arrangements. Special training programmes should be carried out for the migrant workers for the preservation and expansion of the overseas labour market. Researches for exploring new labour markets, conducting training for potential workers and re-training for the returnees should also be undertaken.
However, it is hard realising such a big enterprise on the part of the government all by itself. All concerned public and private agencies like the Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment Ministry, Bangladesh Bank, PCBs, NCBs, BAIRA, and BOESL should put their heads together to find a rewarding way out. It is time to call a halt to the trickery of the fake and fraudulent manpower agents/ agencies who are robbing the job seekers blind. The government has cautioned them and decided to make tough laws to ensure protection against all kinds of deception in manpower export activities. But they should mean it. The aspirants also should be cautious about the web of deceit in this sector.
The NRBs are really the golden sons of our soil. They ought to be supported with far more attention and care for the greater interest of the country.
writes fiction and columns, and teaches English literature at Kushtia Islamic University. Email: [email protected]