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Building from Abroad

Written by Tahera Sajid  •  Region  •  February 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Building-from-AbroadMillions of Bangladeshi migrants around the world are diligently working and sending back money to support development efforts in their home country.

The demand for human labor in the international community due to economic globalization ensures a constant flow of migrant workers, especially from developing countries. Bangladeshi workers have also long availed the opportunity of working abroad to not only stabilize their personal finances but also support development efforts within Bangladesh, one of the most populous nations in the world, making it a major manpower exporter in the international community.

Traditionally, Bangladeshi migrant workers have chosen destinations in the Middle East, South-East Asia and some Western countries. As figures from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS 2010) show, the number of migrants from 1976 to 2009 was 5.5 million. According to the World Bank 2010 report, the main direction of this outflow is to Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, and Qatar. Percentage-wise, this amounts to about 70% of the Bangladeshi migrant worker population, with Saudi Arabia hosting almost half of them. Singapore and Malaysia also claim a considerable share. Bangladeshi migrants to Western countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada are more permanent settlers from urban and middle-class backgrounds, rather than contract laborers.

Prior to 2003, the Bangladeshi migrant worker population showed much gender disparity. Due to serious concerns raised about the mistreatment of women workers as victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking in host countries, the Bangladeshi government placed a ban on their migration. Consequently, they made up less than 1% of the worker outflow. However, economic pressures forced the government of Bangladesh to lift the ban in 2007 and, within one year, the figure for female migrants spiked to 5% of the total. This step was aimed at empowering Bangladeshi women and was applauded by women’s rights organizations around the world.

Unfortunately, the safety concern of both male and female workers remains unaddressed. One major contributing factor is that Bangladesh has not ratified the 1990 UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. Although a signatory to the convention, the Bangladeshi government has resisted ratification for fear of jeopardizing the active recruitment of its citizens and the resulting loss of potential benefits to its economy. Many human rights groups have criticized the government for not doing enough to uphold the rights of workers and their families despite their huge contribution to the country’s economy.

According to a 2009 national survey conducted by the International Organization for Migration in Bangladesh, another important area of concern for migrant workers is the high cost of moving abroad. This is largely due to a collusion between corrupt businesses, recruiters and government officials. Forced by an inability to finance their trip and find alternative arrangements, workers give in to promises of cost-effective processing of papers and obtain illegal falsified documents, most often unknowingly. These undocumented workers are attractive to employers looking for cheap labor and zero liability but carry huge potential for forced labor, debt bondage, exploitation, sexual abuse and human trafficking. To provide maximum benefits to the economy and social sector, this widespread corruption and exploitation needs to be effectively curtailed.

The importance of remittances cannot be emphasized enough for a developing country like Bangladesh, as various developmental studies suggest. Remittances have emerged as the key driver for economic growth in Bangladesh. This often serves as a more stable form of investment than foreign aid or even foreign investment. International development organizations, such as the International Labor Organization (ILO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), are increasingly citing migrants’ remittances as a tool to promote development, though the effectiveness of these depends on how remittances are utilized, whether in consumer markets, savings or investment in education, healthcare, businesses, etc. Whatever the case may be, these remittances have certainly helped Bangladesh improve its international credit rating, which forms the basis for, and brings in, investor trust and confidence in transactions at international levels.

A heavy drain to the total estimated inflow of remittances is the use of unofficial channels. Several micro-studies in Bangladesh have shown that only half of the remittances are sent through official channels and the rest through unofficial means. To encourage usage of formal channels, the Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment (EWOE) has been set up and is working to provide a system of efficient management of the migration sector.

Despite this issue, official remittances to Bangladesh made it the eighth largest remittance-recipient country in the world in 2010, according to World Bank MRF 2011. Remittances amounted to more than US$11 billion, representing 13% of the Gross Domestic Product. In 1976-77, migrant workers contributed US$49 million, which grew to US$9,689 million in 2008-2009. The global recession in 2008-2009 affected the number of migrants from Bangladesh, as did the political instability in the Middle East, but official government figures showed that remittance inflows during that time were still higher than the level of foreign direct investment and the total foreign aid received. Careful analysis by various development agencies revealed that the returning migrants from the Middle East were more inclined to bring their savings back home, while those who chose to stay sent their earnings home instead of risking life savings to political unpredictability.

The migration of Bangladeshi skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers is quite diverse in terms of destinations and the benefits from their labor are also manifold. There is much room for improvement in how the flow of this important source of income may be managed to increase the mutual benefit to individuals and the wider society. Most importantly, this includes providing protection to the migrant workers at home and abroad before expecting any return benefit from them. 


Tahera Sajid is a freelance journalist and lives in Massachusetts, USA.  She is a community builder and an active advocate for interfaith relations. 

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