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Volume 5 Issue 03 | March 2011



Original Forum

Readers' Forum

Sultana's Nightmare:
Henas and the Feminist Movement
--Shahana Siddiqui
Women in the CHT: The Violent Hills --Hana Shams Ahmed
Notes to My Successor:
The Forgotten Women of the 1971 War

--Ziauddin Choudhury
Liberating the Women of 1971
Interview with Shafina Lohani
Interview with Mahmuda Haque Choudhury

--Marianne Scholte
Woman on a Mission
--Marianne Scholte talks to Shafina Lohani
Project Post-1971
--Marianne Scholte speaks to Mahmuda Haque Choudhury
Her Home
--Shayera Moula
Photo Feature: Freedom at 40--Zahedul I. Khan

Journeys through Shadows:
Gender and armed conflict
--Bina D'Costa

Women as Decision Makers:
Are organisations ready?
--Dr. Syed Saad Andaleeb
Govern Migration, Take Women Forward --Farheen Khan
Women's Rights and the Fourth Estate
--Arafat Hosen Khan
Why Women in India Should
Defend Arundhati Roy

A Patriotic Dissenter
Empress Extraordinaire
--Rubaiyat Hossain


Forum Home

Govern Migration, Take Women Forward

FARHEEN KHAN looks at gender disparity in the context
of employment opportunities abroad.

Bangladesh is preparing its Sixth Five Year Plan (2010-2015) where there will be, for the first time, a strategy for effective governance of the migration sector. Governance of foreign migration of our labour force has become a critical imperative due to the size and growth of this sector, as well as the value of remittances and its contribution to our GDP. At an open policy dialogue before civil society and policymakers on June 2, 2010 prior to incorporating the strategy into this Five Year Plan, the Minister for Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment (MoEWOE) significantly highlighted that migration as a sector is only second in size to agriculture, yet has almost no resource allocation from the state.

The Refugees and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) of the University of Dhaka has long advocated for structuring this sector for better management of our human resources who migrate, protection of the rights of migrants and their families, responsiveness to the international labour market plus enterprise development so that the remittance received can be applied in productive fields.


Bangladesh is a labour surplus country with a current workforce skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled of more than 75 million and counting. Labour force officially includes any active person over the age of 15 years who is employed, underemployed, self-employed, unemployed or seeking work. Added to these official constituents, are breadwinners below 15 years of age who are engaged in gainful employment as a victim of the child labour phenomenon.

The bureau of statistics pegged the size of the labour force at 50 million in 2006 a third of which were female while the official unemployment and underemployment rates are quoted at 4.25% and 24% respectively. These numbers are fluid, depending on who is counting, formal versus informal employment, rural versus urban interpretations of participation, etc., but debates on statistics aside, let us agree that there are probably 20 million people seeking full- or part-time employment as we speak. And the effect of unemployment on poverty needs no expounding here as we speed towards the MDG's watershed year of 2015.

The past years have revealed one pragmatic method of putting a dent in our unemployment rate, and that is short-term foreign labour migration. Professional, skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers from Bangladesh now travel to foreign countries mainly in the Middle East and Southeast Asia for contractual employment of specific duration, and earn manifold of what they did at home. We are now a major participant in the international labour market.

Short-term labour migrants are those workers who have achieved (i) a legal contract for overseas employment, (ii) obtained a valid work visa through due process, and most importantly, (iii) received clearance from the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment's designated authority the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET). BMET recorded migration numbers of the last five years as 252,000 (2005), 281,000 (2006), 832,000 (2007), 875,000 (2008) and 475,000 (2009).

Other categories of workers from Bangladesh migrate with or without a priori employment contracts, or sometimes even without legitimate documentation, but this group is acknowledged to be "irregular migrants" and are not reflected in the migration statistics of our country. Experts claim that a third or more of all Bangladeshi migrants are irregular and they are testament to the pitiable state of migration governance in Bangladesh.

Legal status notwithstanding, this small number of Bangladeshis overseas (1-2% of our labour force) makes a significant contribution to our national income by remitting their personal incomes back to the country.

In 2009, Bangladesh was the seventh largest remittance receiving country in the entire world and the second largest in South Asia. Remittances, rather than readymade garments, are the topmost earner of our net foreign exchange earnings.

Official records shows that Bangladesh received US$ 4.2 billion (2005), US$ 5.5 billion (2006), US$ 6.6 billion (2007), US$ 8.98 billion (2008) and US$ 10.72 billion (2009) from migrants abroad. In 2008 this constituted 11% of our GDP, was nine times higher than the FDI and five times the gross aid inflow of that year. The 2008 remittances equalled 56.1% of total export earnings and financed 36.6% of the country's total imports.

Although remittance is privately sent to the migrants' families and not into the national coffers, the simple process of remittance avails Bangladesh the 'bonus' opportunity to automatically gain the equivalent amount of foreign currency. This is a windfall because Bangladesh can otherwise only access foreign currency through trade, in exchange for goods and services sold overseas.

As a trade deficit country, we are in constant need of it to service our imports. Therefore, remittances bridge a vital fiscal gap, and for more than five years in a row Bangladesh has maintained a balance of payments surplus. Significantly, while the number of migrants in 2009 had decreased, the value of our remittances does not correlate, and has risen.

In addition to the macroeconomic effects on trade, there are other benefits remittance flow had helped Bangladesh cut poverty by 6% in 2006.

The catch here in this seemingly golden narrative is that while our remittance figures and the migrants' immediate families are experiencing a definite boost, and the migrants' original home districts are benefiting from new construction and investments, this sector is grossly underdeveloped, it lacks formal investments in training and job-research, and carries the risk of discrimination and abuse of the migrants due to the lack of proper regulations and their enforcement. Even with a history of three decades of migration from Bangladesh, this sector retains many gaps and inconsistencies, which present risks to the well-being of migrants and the sustainability of the country's remittances. The conditions are almost hostile to female workers a good indication of the ad hoc nature of Bangladesh's approach to the international labour market.

While we are dazzled by the remittance value, our eyes have been closed to the reality that the sector is sustained purely through the individual expenditure by the migrating workers and the efforts of a few recruiting agencies. Bangladesh has minimal financial provisions (loans, insurance, accident compensation) and inadequate legal framework (for protection of migrant workers) to sustain migration. A clear strategy in this Five Year Plan is critical to enhance this sector.

This reality of risk and exposure is most starkly reflected in the case of female migration. Only 2% of all Bangladeshi migrants are female. Migration expert Dr. Tasneem Siddiqui has established migration as a critical component of development and poverty reduction. While migration and its associated benefits can lift a family out of poverty and can make affordable essential protection tools like access to education, healthcare, social mobility and livelihood opportunities, this option remains restricted to the domain of males.

In this decade of (almost) gender parity in primary education and greater number of women graduating with better results than men in national board examinations, this disparity in foreign job uptake can at best be considered an anomaly, and at worst negative discrimination. But this is exactly what has resulted from the lack of proper regulation, research on suitable opportunities, knowledge of foreign markets, and timely policies. If a third of our labour force is women, then it is realistic to expect that a third of our migrants could be as well.

The simple reality is that female migration is not encouraged or even critically considered in Bangladesh. Aligned with the social taboos against women migrating for work, the government has also failed to institute proper governance of migration that respond to the needs of women, resulting in negligible investment by entrepreneurs in skill and language training, certification, sluggish search for foreign opportunities and a general absence of pre-departure orientation on workers' and individual rights necessary for female migration.

Currently, Bangladesh does not actively provide its men and women equal access to opportunities in overseas employment, and by its omission in guiding women into jobs for which they are optimally qualified, it is keeping them confined into stereotypical roles of housemaids and cleaners overseas. There are opportunities in nursing and healthcare, factory work and child-minding but large numbers of women are not taking up those jobs due to constraints like absence of proper certification or language training.

The infrastructure for female migration is largely absent whereas in labour sending countries like India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, a proportionate share of migrants are trained women. Growth of female migration was also seriously stunted by a periodic ban on female migration following reports of abuse in the 90s. Even now, there are no policies to positively stimulate female migration, while there exists a number of provisions even deterring the production of adequately skilled female workers for migration, for instance, nurses.

Even after three decades of migration from Bangladesh, and a rather significant dependence on migrants' remittances for our economic well-being, Bangladesh has not passed any specific laws to protect this sector since the Emigration Ordinance 1982. Recruiting agencies remain largely unregulated, migration costs fluctuate freely, informal recruitment outside of the purview of proper legal protection is rampant, and compensation for accident or fraud is minimal. Therefore, poorer families have to bear greater risks during migration as there is little institutional support in case of any loss. This risk is disproportionately affecting women from investing in migration to better their situation.

Barriers to female migration are cultural as well as institutional. Culturally, decision-making for female migrants is much more involved due to the greater vulnerability of women that leave them exposed to harassment, insecurity, fraud, discrimination and even violence from the employers. Just as investment in migration is left up to the individual migrants themselves, protection of rights during migration is also left up to them due to the limited instruments of the state. For women, this necessity for self-dependence poses the greatest challenge for the bulk of lower skilled categories of female migrants who have little knowledge or exposure.

However, migration as a poverty reduction tool for women and women-supported families should still be seriously emphasised with the right framework in place, as recent research has also established that women remit a larger share of their income (72%) compared to men (45%). The case is made stronger by the existent demand for trained female workers in the international labour market. With proper training on skills, and necessary coaching on their human and civic rights abroad, our women can move into the more skilled categories of work, and survive and succeed just as well as men are doing.

Women's vulnerability is directly related to their level of education, training and awareness. This opens up the possibility that with a little additional investment to mitigate migration risks, and opening up appropriate training avenues, we can boost the numbers of female migrants from 2% to an equal proportion or even more. To protect women, it is not necessary to curb their migration as had been done previously, but to enable and empower them to take charge of their own protection.

In his speech at the meeting on the Five-Year Plan on Migration, the Minister of Labour and Expatriates' Welfare made the promising announcement that after the recent introduction of a 15-day training and orientation for unskilled female workers, there are no reports of incidents of abuse. Therefore, with the right migration tools, women can address poverty and contribute to their own development.

In the labour surplus market of Bangladesh, it is lamentable that women today are held back from economic emancipation through migration. This issue has to be promptly addressed by policymakers and the private sector who can alleviate the migration risks through proper regulations, training opportunities, access to loans for covering the migration costs, property insurance for their belongings, legal recourse against fraudulent agents or any protection against loss of employment. With these few well-planned steps, female workers no longer need to remain an insignificant trace in our prolific migration phenomenon.

Further Reading
Occasional Paper 21, RMMRU, 2010, Fhamida Yasmin, "Gender Responsiveness of Bangladesh Overseas Employment Policy: Implication on Female Migration."

Farheen Khan is a humanitarian worker and former Programme Officer with Refugees and Migratory Movements Research Unit (www.rmmru.org).


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