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3 months ago

Migrant workers: Anatomy of need and neglect 

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In Bangladesh, like elsewhere migration plays a significant role in society and economy. Considering that reality, neither data management to support policy making and field level implementation is of quality. It is not looking at the present with the urgency that is needed in such a critical sector nor with concern at the future that a low skill employment arena requires in the rapidly changing scenario.

Migrants are of various types- legal, irregular/non-legal and in-between. Thus although various sources are used, the actual data has not been pinpointed so policy making is not there. We can only assume that most migrants are legal but the figure which the Finance minister quoted in the Parliament and which UN agencies mention varies by almost 50% showing the gap in understanding and interacting.

But even if the numbers were not so high, it has a massive population that needs much more attention than it is getting now. Problem is, the  authorities have looked at the issue only from a remittance point of view making the matter very limited in scale given the impact they are having now in every aspect and will have in future.

While UN statistics says that  Bangladesh is the 6th largest migrant sending and the 8th largest remittance receiving country, many estimates show that it could be the highest or close in sending and higher in remittance as well.

IOM REPORT AND DATA

The IOM report says that in 2020, 7.40 million Bangladeshi migrants lived abroad and played a key role in the country's development. The World Bank estimates that the Bangladeshi population abroad sent home over USD 18 billion in 2019, with 73 per cent coming from those working in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. These remittances account for over 6 per cent of GDP, representing the country's second largest source of foreign income.

"The efforts by policymakers to encourage and facilitate the sending of remittances have greatly aided the remittance landscape in Bangladesh. The Central Bank of Bangladesh more than tripled the ceiling on its 2019 cash incentive scheme - whereby remittance beneficiaries receive a 2 per cent bonus on transfers made using formal systems - up to USD 5,000. Additionally, some commercial banks are providing an additional one per cent incentive to increase the attractiveness of sending remittances even more."

"Overall, international migration has been a critical part of the development story of Bangladesh, with migrants moving to pursue opportunities for economic and social development, and then helping raise the living standards in the home" said Fathima Nusrath Ghazzali, IOM Bangladesh's Officer In Charge.

Problem is, the migrants are seen as cash cows of the dollar variety only and the rest are ignored.

IS IT DEVELOPMENT OR REMITTANCE ONLY?

Bangladesh may have passed its "golden age" of remittance as the corona period shock showed. It was a global health crisis which exposed the fragile form of economic inter-connectivity particularly which affects low – skilled migrant labour. The result was the decline in income at both national and household levels. However, actions that are being taken don't take into account that the opportunity to shift to another sector is limited in Bangladesh creating a labour supply that is huge and the demand that is often uncertain. This is all the more worrying because the RMG sector largely based on internal migrant labour is on a similar plane as it faces multiple threats from introduction of AIs to fall in the international market demand and political sanctions globally.

The similarity of the threats are however not being visibly addressed by those who matter. Part of the crisis is that the capacity of the government - the formal sector - is limited and burdened by limited efficiency. This also includes the think tanks linked to the sector whether migration or RMG whose capacity appears muted beyond appealing to the Government which usually are not heeded. Very little work is being done on long term planning and impact on society and institutions including politics.

DENIAL SYNDROME OF IRREGULAR

MIGRATION 

Officially Bangladesh has around 15 million migrants as stated by the Finance minister AHM Mustafa Kamal in his budget speech of 2023. Around one million women workers have got employment opportunities abroad in the same period.

However, this doesn't include two critical zones of migration- Pakistan and India. While one is politically embarrassing- Pakistan-, the other is politically inflammatory-India. While Bangladeshi migrants in Pakistan number around 2.0 million, the number in India is not known as it is an issue that has many connotations.

The Indian ruling party has used the issue of irregular migrants in India to justify various policies while in response Bangladesh has taken a position of denial that there are any. However, field level data collection does show that migration to India occurs significantly particularly from Southern and Northern Bengal.  It helps the economies of both the countries. Migration to India too is largely from the lower economic classes.

The impact, contribution and problems of this group which again would number into several millions are not included in any estimation.  Even if they are 3-4 million, this figure added to Pakistan would make it 5-6 million. Together, it is safe to assume that around 20 million Bangladeshis are working abroad. Given the population size, 170 million is around 12% of the total population. That is the highest migrating population in the world. 

Yet Bangladesh doesn't seem to see the kind of current impact it is having and the future impact too. Nor is it assessing what could happen if the slow skilled global market declines. The short sighted remittance driven policies are a bomb waiting to explode.

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