The Financial Express

Social security for vulnerable migrant workers

Migrant workers, mostly from Bangladesh, queue to collect free masks and get their temperatures taken in Singapore                  — Reuters Migrant workers, mostly from Bangladesh, queue to collect free masks and get their temperatures taken in Singapore                  — Reuters

According to UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) 2019, the number of international migrants estimated 272 million, of which two-thirds are migrant workers. Labour migration from Bangladesh remains a viable strategy to find better employment and livelihood opportunities abroad. As a result, nearly 10.2 million people live and work in 173 countries worldwide.

Though Bangladesh government has taken a number of initiatives and strategies to improve its migration governance, majority of the migrant workers rely mostly on local brokers for processing their migration documents. Hence, a significant portion of these outbound migrant workers are unaware about government offers including death compensation, compensation for injured workers, scholarships for children and other welfare benefits. Circumventing the proper recruitment process or becoming victim of labour trafficking, exploited by employers or due to workplace injury, thousands of migrant workers return Bangladesh empty-handed every year. Therefore, the social and economic pressure like debt bondage, unemployment and forfeiture of assets sometimes hurl these returnees into vulnerable situations. The migrants themselves or their employers are required to pay mandatory welfare fees (valued Tk. 3,500 per person) to government, from which the government generates resources to create a welfare fund called Wage Earners Welfare Fund. However, budget allocation in social security and safety net for these workers in our annual national budget are hardly reflected, as majority of welfare activities are implemented with Wage Earners Welfare fund which actually grew up from welfare fees paid by migrant workers.    

MEASURES FOR MIGRANT WORKERS SOCIAL SECURITY: In the last one decade or so, Bangladesh government gradually expanded social safety net schemes to cover maximum number of vulnerable people, which somehow inadvertently excluded the migrant workers. In some circumstances, the deceived and returnee migrants, particularly those who are victims of visa trading, fraudulence of recruiting agencies, premature return or even labour trafficking, may become part of the vulnerable community and they need to be  categorised distinctly. Special social security services are needed for these migrant families from mainstream social safety net programmes. Though the Expatriate Welfare ministry made mandatory life insurance for migrant workers (since December 2019), the ministry as well as the Wage earners' welfare board and Probashi Kallayan Bank (PKB) are yet to offer any special social insurance packages such as vulnerable community allowances and relief card. Under the National Social Security Strategy (NSSS), needy migrant workers have not been specifically included as socially excluded people. Some employment generation and training programmes like SEP, SEIP with the goal reducing the vulnerability of socially excluded people are implementing by BMET under the Expatriate Ministry. Despite that, the National Action Plan of NSSS (2016-2021) mentioned to keep social allowance programme as a continuous activity for migrant workers and their family members. Additionally, it kept skill development programme for youth and women as another key programme under human development cluster. Apart from these initiatives whose cost are borne from the national budget, the expatriate welfare ministry backed by the Wage Earners Welfare Fund has taken a number of welfare activities like: education scholarship, death compensation or grant, and repatriation of migrants from abroad etc. The Action plan of the ministry states, it will strengthen social allowance (financial supports/ assistances/ benefits) for migrant workers and their family members by increasing the number of programme and beneficiaries, but so far the programmes are not visible enough. The government has allocated stimulus packages from its exchequer as 2 per cent incentive for legal remittance transfer, which are inadequate for social protection of these vulnerable community. 

WHAT WE CAN DO MORE: Though the government has not yet announced any social insurance and allowance scheme from its exchequer, however, based on identified bottlenecks of existing service delivery and availability of resources, the following supplementary programmes could be considered for social security of the mogrant workers.

Retirement Benefits/ supplements for Returnee Migrant Worker: The government may take initiative to keep pension schemes as retirement benefits from government exchequer for returnee migrants who completed service tenure successfully and have significant contribution in remittance sending.

Issuance of Universal Health Card: The urgency of issuing health card for migrant workers came into forefront amid the Coronavirus pandemic. Therefore, in emergencies i.e., disaster, accidents, pandemic, sickness, migrants irrespective of gender, race, religion, and job category need to be provided with health insurance and health cards.  The funds may generate from government exchequer and Wage Earners Welfare Fund.

Microcredit support: For Enterprise development and promoting IGA among female migrant workers as well as the destitute returnee migrant workers, the government from its exchequer could allocate funds for microcredit with low or zero interest. It could be implemented or disbursed through PKSF (endorsing special policy and guidelines from MRA) partners, Social welfare Department, Youth Department, Women Department, Probashi Kallayan Bank (PKB) or from WEWB.

Emergency Grants: The expatriate Ministry as the frontline ministry needs to create a emergency fund for migrant workers to provide emergency allowances or grants during emergencies like natural disaster, pandemic/ outbreak, economic recession  to recoup after the disaster. The funds could be generated from government social safety net allocation, contribution from BAIRA (overseas recruiting agencies association) and from CSR fund of PKB.

Special Allowance for Vulnerable Migrant Community: Like other vulnerable communities incorporated in National Social Security Strategy i.e. Dalit, Harijon, Transgender, disable etc. it requires to have space for vulnerable migrant community (VMC), especially the victims of labour trafficking, pre-mature returnees, debt bonded migrants families. Here, government could keep special allowances for these community from government exchequer to pull-up them from poverty trap and involve them in different economic activities.

Annual Incentive benefits/ provident fund: Migrant workers may be encouraged to invest in contributory provident fund or in different government owned enterprises from which they will get annual incentive benefits and shareholders profits.

The success to ensure social security for migrants that they are entitled to, however, depends on migrants' vulnerability mapping, database creation, emergency preparedness and digitalistion of G2P payment system to make the initiative accountable and transparent, which are still challenging for the government to accomplish. Therefore, it is essential for the ministry as well as other private and public institutions accountable for safe labour migration to review existing policies and strategies and involve the civil society while finalising the programmes and undertaking activities for the welfare of the migrant community.

Aminul Hoque Tushar is a migration analyst.

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