Overcoming challenges faced by migrant workers

Published : 11 Jan 2022 09:29 PM

The preceding month has seen efforts being undertaken by our Prime Minister and the Ministry for Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment to try and resolve and overcome some of the continuing challenges faced abroad by our expatriate workers. This aspect is significant for us because the process not only provides employment abroad but also helps us with the remittance sent back to our country by these workers from abroad. It may be noted that Bangladesh exported a total of 617,209 workers to different countries during 2021. This was a considerable improvement over the Covid Pandemic affected scenario in 2020.

We have also followed with anxiety and concern how the osmotic effect of human trafficking and illegal migration equation is proving to be a menace for those trying to gain from this exercise. This has also led to thousands of illegal Bangladeshi migrants seeking asylum in Europe through dangerous sea routes- which more often than not has been creating deaths and imprisonment. This dynamic has already led to hundreds having been drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. The departure points in most cases have been from the northern shores of Libya and also from Turkish shores. The fourth week of December witnessed a migrant boat accident that resulted in the death of more than 30 persons in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Greece.

The sorry state of affairs that currently exist is being further exacerbated through the inability of regional and international institutions- the UNHCR (whose mandate is to protect refugees) and its sister agency the UN's International Organization for Migration (IOM)-  to restore a degree of order within this intractable paradigm, particularly within Detention Centres. The European Union, it may be mentioned  has tightened measures to prevent migrants crossing the Mediterranean. This has reduced the influx somewhat. The EU in this regard has issued a statement, where it has reiterated that it "does not seek to stop global migration, but works with international partners to manage international migration, protect migrants' human rights, prevent perilous irregular journeys exploited by illegal human traffickers and ensure opportunities for legal and safe pathways". They have also drawn attention to the need for "Global migration to be addressed via numerous channels and in a multilateral approach.

There has also been another aspect within this unfortunate paradigm- that of Bangladeshi women migrant workers who went abroad to work and then have returned with shattered dreams. Some research findings on the issue was presented by the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies (BILS) on December 26, 2021. It shed light on the conditions of our female migrant returnees. About 55 percent of 323 female migrant workers' return to the country was either unexpected or forced, and as many as 22.6 percent of the female migrants returned before even completing one year of their migration. About 17.6 percent came back between one and two years, and 17.3 percent within two to three years. The data was collected between July and December in 2020. Many of these female migrant workers also revealed sorry tales of abuse of different dimensions to the authorities upon their return. About 38 percent of the returnees were physically abused in their destination countries, while 52 percent were victims of forced labour. Many returnees came back empty-handed, a burden of debt already hanging over their heads. The BILS report indicated that about 61 percent of the returnees had a debt of Tk 76,736 each.

This disconcerting scenario did not stop after their return to Bangladesh. Most unfortunately, they have been apparently also facing new challenges of social bias and stigma along with economic hardships. About 60 percent of the returnees have apparently not been able to find work or employment due to this unfortunate discrimination. It needs no emphasizing that this is a serious issue that deserves to be addressed with due priority by the authorities concerned. There also needs to be greater coordination between Members of the Parliamentary Committee on Labor and Employment Ministry and other government Agencies providing services to migrant workers. We must not overlook the fact that the required humanitarian measures need to be undertaken to uphold the dignity, social protection and honor of the country's female migrant workers.

The next significant development that has ushered in the positive paradigm took place in December 2021- with Malaysia approving, after an interval of nearly three years the recruitment once again of workers from Bangladesh. It may be recalled that labor exports from Bangladesh to Malaysia began in 1984. Until 2009 all agencies had the opportunity to export workers to Malaysia according to their qualifications without hindrance. BMET data shows that Bangladesh exported a total of 1.06 million skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers to Malaysia from 1976 to 2019.

On 10 December the Malaysian Cabinet took this decision. It will involve all sectors of that country- the domestic, agricultural, manufacturing, services, mining and quarrying and construction sectors. This movement forward, very correctly, was appreciated by our Minister for Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment who followed this up by traveling to Malaysia and signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on 19 December with their Minister for Human Resources.

Subsequently, Bangladeshis desiring to go and work in that country have been urged not to communicate or deal with any one or pay money in advance to any broker or any unauthorized agency. They have been asked to contact the Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment Ministry database in this regard. It is understood that instead of suffering due to uncertain conditions created by intermediaries, going through government digitized channels will ensure financial protection for intending migrant workers. The government will determine the service charge which will not be more than three months’ pay for the intending worker. Conseq­uently, the migration cost will be far below Taka 160,000 that had officially been fixed earlier in the case of Malaysia. It has also been revealed that Malaysia has agreed that most expenses of a migrant worker will be paid by the employer. This will include payment of their airfares to Malaysia, their standard accommodation while in that country, associated insurance and health service facilities while working there. Employers have also been barred from keeping the passport of their workers in their custody. One can only hope that all the aspects of the agreed MOU will be functionally properly implemented to avoid exploitation. 

It is understood that this renewed recruitment process will be initiated from January, 2022. At the same time, measures will also be undertaken through discussion pertaining to the Bangladeshi migrant workers who are presently held back from any employment over there because they have entered the country without Malaysian legal requirements. It is being hoped that a certain percentage among them will be accorded some legal status.

The other important development that has focused on improvement of working conditions for expatriate workers relates to Maldives. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s official visit to that country on the invitation of that country’s President and Prime Minister lasted for a few days from 22 December to 27 December, 2021. In addition to fostering the existing close cooperation between the two countries, during her visit, focus was also given on how bilateral economic relations can be improved. For quite some time Bangladeshi expatriate workers in that country have helped to improve their socio-economic living conditions but have been facing several difficulties with their working conditions and different facets of their employment matrix.

During her visit, Prime Minister Hasina not only had meetings with the Maldivian senior leadership, discussed ways and means as to how to improve maritime security and connectivity. She also gifted the country 13 military vehicles. In addition, talks were also held with the Bangladeshi expatriate community.

The expatriate Bangladeshi population was reminded to go abroad for jobs through the legal channel instead of attempting to do so through brokers. She pointed out that this might end up in their not getting promised jobs and that too at lower salaries. This was an important step and it showed that Bangladesh wanted to help Maldives but at the same time did not want its citizens to suffer while they would be working in that country.

During her visit she presided over the signing of two MOUs- on Recruitment of Qualified Health Professionals and also Cooperation in the Areas of Youth and Sports Development. There was also an Agreement on the Elimination of Double Taxation with respect to the Taxes on Income and the Prevention of Tax Evasion and Avoidance. Hopefully, the condition for Bangladeshi expatriate workers in that country will improve. The relevant authorities in Bangladesh within the banking sector have also been urged to create the necessary conditions to assist the workers in remitting their savings to their families in Bangladesh.    

One needs to conclude by reiterating that our economic diplomacy efforts pertaining to additional jobs for our workers abroad will be enhanced if we can create skill development. This aspect has become vital for a digitalized world which has no frontiers. One believes that if we can create greater development within this area, Bangladeshi citizens will be sought after by the developed countries in Europe, the UK and North America and many other countries in Asia.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance