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     Volume 6 Issue 2cover, 2007 |

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Cover Story

Migratory Workers
Will Their Lives Get Any Better?

Elita Karim

It is an all too familiar scene-- the long queue of tired-looking men waiting for hours on end outside some shabby-looking office that seems to hold all their hopes and dreams. Outside Mideast Staffing in Banani, is such a line. One group of men seems all set to fly off to Dubai, dressed in yellow matching Mideast Staffing t-shirts and are just finishing up with the last minute formalities. One of them is Nazrul Islam, a thirty-something man who had to sell three bighas of his family land to pay Tk 2,00,000 to the recruitment office. Asked why he thought it was necessary to sell off his family property when he could have easily set up a small business of his own in Bangladesh instead, he says, "I will come back and buy back the three bighas of land along with ten more bighas of land with the money that I earn from Dubai."

The big smile on his face reflects the anticipation of a better future that every migrant worker carries when starting this long and uncertain journey.

While many dreams do come true for them it is also true that migrant workers are one of the most susceptible sections of the labour force in Bangladesh. At least five million Bangladeshis live abroad sending around USD 6 billion remittances every year -- a major source of the government's foreign exchange. They are forever facing hardships both at home and in the host countries. Most of the migrant workers come from rural villages in Bangladesh and are often taken advantage of by various agents and middlemen. They are made to pay large sums of money to migrate to another country, just to go through yet another series of harassment by their foreign employers.

These days different organisations such as BOMSA give migrant workers basic skills training that proves to be invaluable for migrant workers

Naz Groups of Associates, another recruitment office in Banani, has been working in the country sending migrant workers all over the world for over 25 years. Over the years, the company has been reviewing its policies of sending workers abroad and has introduced many strategies to overcome the obstacles that the workers seem to face.

"One of the biggest problems that the workers face when they go to their destination countries is their lack of the appropriate skill," says Hafizur Rahman, the General Manager of the company. Naz Groups has opened up a vocational training section, where the workers are made to go through various kinds of skills training before flying off to their destination countries. "They are trained to fix pipes, work with wood, plaster even sewing and repairing electronic goods," he adds.

Twenty-two-year-old Murshed Islam is bunking out at the mess with a few other people at the accommodations provided by Naz Groups, and comes from all the way from Gazipur. Very soon he will be leaving for Dubai and has registered with the vocational training school to train himself as a carpenter. While working on a staircase, a part of his practical classes, Murshed says that he had to pay at least Tk 2,50,000 for all the paperwork and formalities to the recruitment office. "My father has a small business," says Murshed. "He is sponsoring me along with my elder brother who is also paying a part of the money." Murshed believes that once he comes back home, he will be able to pay back the full amount to his father and brother and eventually offer a better life to his family.

The Daily Star - RMMRU roundtable discusses ways to lessen the burden of the migrant worker

It is not only the families of the migrant workers that benefit from the hard-earned savings that they send home. The remittance that these migrant workers send back to the country contributes immensely in terms of structural and financial developments. According to Dr. Tasneem Siddiqui, the Chairperson of Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU), about 46 per cent of the total remittances are channelled through official sources, 40 percent through hundi, a quick, relatively cheap and easy method of transferring money from one country to another, 8 per cent hand-carried by the migrant, and 6 per cent through friends and relatives. "Most migrant workers are from the rural areas of the country and they go to other countries leaving their families behind in the hopes of developing one's own family," she says. "They bring back remittances in cash and also in kind, for instance in the form of gold, electronics, television sets and other valuables." Previously, migration has always been seen to make developmental and positive impacts in the host or the receiving countries. However, successive governments in Bangladesh have begun to realise the importance of remittance to the economy since the 1990s.

Sumaiya Islam, the Project Director of BOMSA, believes that the right to information is the solution to the migrant workers' problems.

Remittance is currently, the second highest foreign exchange earning sector after garments manufacturing. According to the research done by RMMRU, for the last two decades, remittances have been around 35 per cent of export earnings, making it the single largest source of foreign currency. If the cost of import of raw materials is adjusted, then the earnings from remittances are higher. Remittances also constitute an important source of the country's budget. They can always play a major role in reducing Bangladesh's dependence on foreign aid. The steady flow of remittances has resolved foreign exchange constraints, improved the balance of payments and helped to increase the supply of national savings.

A recent roundtable session organised jointly by The Daily Star and RMMRU discussed the many obstacles faced by Bangladeshi workers abroad. Siddiqui, mentions in her paper on Safe Migration and Remittance that on an average at least 300,000 people have migrated from Bangladesh annually over the last five years, as short-term contract workers. It is common knowledge that Bangladesh has always been participating in the supply side of the global labour market, being a massive labour surplus country. "This has actually increased the global demand in the market," says Siddiqui.

There are two types of voluntary international migration that take place in Bangladesh -- long-term migration and the short-term migration. Long-term migration is usually made to the west and generally includes those with permanent residency, work permit holders and professionals. Short-term migration is usually made to the Middle Eastern countries and South East Asian countries, where a majority of the workers from Bangladesh migrate. It involves contractual work. These short-term migrants are classified under professional, skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers.

The long wait - outside a recruiting agency.

According to Bangladesh Bank, migrant remittances increased from USD 3.06 billion (2002-2003) to USD 3.85 billion (2004-2005). Currently, most of the country's remittances come from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, amounting to a total of USD 1462.41 million, where the maximum number of the labour force from Bangladesh migrate to. The Bangladesh Bank reserves hold an amount of almost USD 5 billion as foreign exchanges from remittances and hopes to reach the USD 6 billion mark by the end of this year.

Dr. Siddiqui says that she appreciates Bangladesh Bank's initiative at undertaking various reforms such as allowing floating exchange rate in current account, fixing time limits for remittance transfer, encouraging banks to switch over to electronic fund transfer system, reducing the lead time, allowing expansion of exchange houses and corresponding banks and establishing a system of lodging complaints by the remitters.

In spite of all this, banks in Bangladesh still handle remittances using the old system and most of the bank branches in the rural areas do not have e-mail or other modern facilities. This is one of the biggest reasons behind the delays the delivery of remittances to families of the migrant workers. "Sometimes it takes up to 12-15 days to deliver the money to a family," said Nazrul Islam of Agrani Bank. "The banks are very old and complicated." Even though a series of private banks have opened up in the country with modern technology and the latest business concepts, the rural villages do not have access to them. These private banks have branched out only to the main sections of the big cities unlike the local banks that have a branch or two in at least every thana.

Dr. Tasneem Siddiqui says that upon return the migrants' plight continues in the absence of institutional opportunities for economic reintegration.

ATM Nasir Uddin, the Executive Director of Bangladesh Bank says that the bank has undertaken a project called the Automated Payment System, which deals with many of the internal glitches that the banks in the country go through. "Once this project becomes a success, the communication and the netting between the many banks within and outside the country will improve and thereby erase the primitive obstacles that the local banks face every other day," he says.

Dr. Siddiqui's paper on 'Safe Migration and Remittance' points out the unscrupulous recruitment practices that have led to high costs, fraud and pauperisation of a section of migrant workers. Because the laws, ways of society, the environment and even the nature of the employers are so unpredictable to the migrant worker on his or her way to work far away from home, many workers are exploited and taken advantage of. For instance, they are given irregular wages, they are made to work in terrible working conditions and, sometimes, even their movements come under heavy restrictions. Upon return, says Siddiqui, the migrants' plight continues in the absence of institutional opportunities for economic reintegration.

Even though most of the workers still go to the Middle East, many young men have drifted towards Malaysia in recent years, despite the horrifying stories of harassed Bangladeshis still living in The Southeast Asian country. Hafizur Rahman, the General Manager of Naz Groups believes that the problems actually lie between the pre-immigration period till the worker gets the job. "The immigration procedure in the Malaysian airport has changed a great deal," he says. "They now check fingerprints of the workers, along with their photographs and other details while verifying the visas." After that the workers are put up together, sometimes 30-40 in one room by the agent, till all the paper work is completed in Malaysia for the worker to begin with the job. "Sometimes it takes even as long as 15 days," says Rahman.

Shiekh Rumana, a migrant worker who worked in Malaysia for six years(left), Parul Akhtar, preparing herself at BOMSA for Dubai.

However, Sumaiya Islam, the Project Director Bangladesh Ovibashi Mohila Sramik Association (BOMSA) says that these workers are not properly informed by the recruitment agencies nor is any initiative taken by the government to ensure this right to information. "Two major issues that the government should look into are right to information and national focus regarding migration to other countries," she says, "When a major chunk of the contribution to the country's economy depends on the remittance that the migrant workers send to Bangladesh, there should be proper policies implemented by the government, so that the migrant workers are not taken advantage of in their home countries and also their host countries."

BOMSA has been working with female migrants for years now and sending female workers in countries like the UAE, Mauritius, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Kuwait. "Most of these women go as homeworkers," says Lily Jahan, the Project Coordinator. "These women come from rural areas and have never even seen a proper refrigerator. They go through three stages of training: orientation, pre-departure and skills training. They are taught to use sandwich makers, rice cookers, washing machines, cookers and stoves."

An agent at Naz Groups, looking for a hundred migrant workers for a private company in the Middle East.

Parul Akhtar is getting ready to go to Dubai. A mother of two children, she has come all the way from Noakhali, to get her training at BOMSA. She will be a homeworker in Dubai and had to pay around Tk 35,000 to the recruiting agency. "My family cannot cope with my husband's earnings," she says, "That's why I decided to work abroad. I will get to come back home after every three years for a month or two for a vacation."

Sheikh Rumana, the General Secretary of BOMSA, worked in Malaysia in the Garments Factory for six years. She had to pay Tk 45,000 to Happy International in Malibagh to complete her paperwork and go to Malaysia to work. "I was one of the lucky ones since my accommodation arrangement was not as bad as the others," she says, "However, I was not given the facilities that I was promised before leaving Dhaka. For the first three years, I could not send anything back home. For the first week, we were given meals as was promised. Afterwards, we were charge for our food. Eventually, we were also being charged for the electricity, which was supposed to be paid for as well."

According to Sumaiya, female migrant workers are supposed to migrate for free, since the visas and the travel costs come from private employers looking for homeworkers. "In fact, they are also provided with USD 200 along with the visa," she says, "Where does the money go? It's obvious that the recruitment office keeps it."

In fact, in Saudi Arabia, visa processing costs exactly SR 2000. However, the migrant workers here pay close to at least SR 10,000 only for the visa to the recruitment offices. "This happens because the migrant workers are not informed about anything, as they should be," asserts Sumaiya.

Many migrant workers believe that if not VIP treatment, there should be some added benefits, too for them when they enter the country. They should be given a tax holiday, check-in and clearing facilities at the airport have to be improved. The authorities should put more emphasis on this neglected sector by giving the migrant workers more incentives, and it can also come up with investment packages that will help build a prosperous Bangladesh. There must be recognition for those who toil in extreme circumstances in an alien land. A proper effective migration policy is integral to the economic development of our country. It could make a world of difference to the lives of hundreds and thousands of migrant workers of this country.



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