Labour migration has been integral to the economic and social development of Bangladesh since its birth. Initially, it was pioneered at the individual level who explored job opportunities at different parts of the world and later it was encouraged at the national level by different supportive government policies and programmes. More than 13 million migrant workers reportedly work now in 165 plus countries and this generates around 9 per cent of employment for the total active labour force (Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training-BMET data). In fact, overseas employment is the second largest contributor to the country's foreign exchange earning only after the Ready-Made Garment (RMG) sector and constitutes 7 to 10 per cent of Bangladesh's GDP. The remittance volume in the fiscal year 2019 was close to US$ 20 billion-- 40 per cent of the total export earnings of Bangladesh [BMET, 2020]; however, the higher proportion of less or semi-skilled workers out of the total migrant workforce is a cause of lower remittance flow for Bangladesh compared to the large size of its overseas workforce.
Out of the total migrant labour-force of Bangladesh, around 44 per cent are classified as less skilled-- i.e., having low or no skill levels and another 16 per cent are classified as semi-skilled. The less-skilled migrant workers are trapped in low-paid jobs wherever they go - often under exploitative conditions. Millions of migrant workers return to the country every year for various reasons and they then struggle to integrate to the domestic labour-force. Workers during their stay at different destination countries remain engaged in an array of jobs and acquire many skills informally on the job or in some occasions are trained formally by their employers. However, upon their return, they struggle to fit into the local job market, particularly in the formal sector since there is no system in Bangladesh to formally acknowledge or assess their skill-sets or competence level.
In Bangladesh, the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment (MoEWOE) is assigned to create new overseas employment opportunities and ensure the welfare of the expatriate workers. As a department under MoEWOE, the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) is engaged in overall development, planning and implementation of the strategies on skill development and creation of a better work force in line with the demand of the local and global labour market. However, several difficulties are there to upscale the workers' skills including a lack of awareness about the importance of acquiring new skills; poor utilisation of existing training capacity, skills mismatch with the market demand, insincerity in upgrading the existing training centres and meagre attempt to creating and updating the training manuals or curriculum by developing and incorporating new materials.
Only 1.8 per cent of the total student population of Bangladesh currently enrol in technical and vocational institutes. Female inclusion in technical-vocational institutes is even lower. No special attention has been given to the ethnic minorities and persons with disabilities to enrol them to the technical and vocational education (TVE) even though active encouragement in mainstreaming these marginalised groups will directly aid the country's aspiration to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) -Leaving No One Behind. Overseas Employment Policy (2006) recognised the equal rights of men and women to migrate for employment. However, the very low female enrolment in TVE limits them from getting decent and safe jobs in the overseas markets. Bangladesh Technical Education Board (BTEB) is primarily responsible for quality assurance of Technical and Vocational Education and Training in the formal sector. In addition, there are other training institutions in the private sector that are not affiliated with the BTEB and those maintain their own set of standards.
Absence of an integrated regulatory mechanism or umbrella accreditation body is a major deterrent towards ensuring the development of a standardised set of skills and recognition of workers' competence level during the pre-departure as well as post-return period. This creates major challenges in confirming meaningful and gainful employment with appropriate wages and benefits at various phases of the migration cycle or labour-force participation tenure for workers. It is vital to provide skills certification to the migrant workers that will be recognised both in the country of origin and country of destination. However, the certificates when awarded to the migrant workers are recognised currently only nationally and these are largely not valued or recognised in the overseas job market. Also, there is a mismatch between the available jobs and the skills or competencies that are being offered to potential migrants at the training centres in Bangladesh. So, the issue is not only having no skills at all but also not having the appropriate or acceptable set of skills for the available jobs. Focusing on this would make the Bangladeshi migrant workers earn higher and inflate the remittance flow nationally.
Improved TVE programmes and initiatives can help the migrant workers establish better and quicker connection with the public and private sectors and facilitate their access to decent employment in both host and home countries. Furthermore, they will always acquire necessary and additional skills on the job. Identification of the skills needed beforehand, matching these with broader national level efforts to enhance the employability of the workers, and offering courses and training programmes focused on specific overseas job markets or sector of employment should clearly reflect in formulating migration policies of Bangladesh. These coordinated efforts will also lead to better information exchange between the technical and vocational education delivery system of Bangladesh and the labour market. A well-functioning labour market information system should be in place. This will allow newest data and information to be incorporated in forecasting the future need of skills and will help eliminate brain waste- in both countries of origin and destination.
An all-inclusive approach based on multi-stakeholder involvement and partnerships on the skilling of workers will help in evolving safer, regular, and better migration. This partnership should include the government of Bangladesh and governments of the destination countries, employers' and workers' organizations of both places, the knowledgeable Bangladeshi diaspora community, and relevant international and civil society organisations. Through their joint interventions, labour migration would upscale.
A Regional Labour Market Monitoring system can also play a crucial role in this practice. Such a system will help standardise the skills and harmonise the labour market information across the region. In South Asia, Bangladesh being one of the highest remittance receiving countries can play a prominent role in this application. Analysing demand-led skills and qualifications, anticipation and matching these with the job market could be one of the essential functions of this system. Such a system can then support as well as influence the decision makers and regulators to set the country's labour migration priorities.
Hasnat M Alamgir is a Professor of Public Health. [email protected]
Tahmina Khanam is a development professional.