On 19 December 2021, the governments of Bangladesh and Malaysia signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU), signifying the reopening of the Malaysian labour market for Bangladeshi workers till 2026.
Meanwhile, on the last day of November this year, another MoU was signed by Greece and Bangladesh which will allow Bangladeshi workers to join the Greek labour force early next year.
While all of this news may seem optimistic, there are still severe challenges in the manpower export sector in our country.
Before a suspension stopped Bangladeshi workers from immigrating to Malaysia in 2018, the main method of labour export between these two countries was the "Government to Government" (G2G) method.
With the advent of this novel system, many hoped that worker exploitation, human trafficking and charging exorbitant fees by recruitment agencies would stop.
But the outcome was far from the expectation.
In 2018, the Malaysian human resource ministry suspended the G2G method by saying, "This suspension will last until a full investigation has been completed into allegations that a syndicate was operating it as a human trafficking scheme to exploit these workers".
The Star, a daily based in Kuala Lumpur, revealed that a human trafficking syndicate, spearheaded by a Bangladeshi businessman with alleged political connections with the Home Ministry of Malaysia raked in at least two billion Malaysian Ringgit in just two years from Bangladeshi workers looking to get jobs in Malaysia.
This phantom businessman was also said to be responsible for the signing of the treaty in the first place, which allowed only 10 recruiting agencies in Bangladesh the right to recruit migrant workers.
Just like any other syndicate, they would charge outrageous fees for the opportunity to go to Malaysia. A worker had to pay Tk4-4.5 lakh before even reaching their destination.
The new MoU states that Malaysian employers will select Bangladeshi agents from a list of legitimate agencies sent by the Bangladeshi government.
The employers will also have to bear all costs of Bangladeshi workers, including immigration fee, visa fee, health examination cost, insurance cost, Covid-19 test cost and quarantine related costs.
As a result, the cost of migration will be reduced to Tk1.2 lakh at most.
"This arrangement will signify a return to form. This is how immigration originally occurred back in the 1980s and 1990s", said Dr Chowdhury Rafiqul Abrar, Executive Director of Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU).
But this process still has its flaws. As Dr Abrar explains, "This process will require staunch vigil from both of the governments. The Bangladesh government should put strong effort to ensure that no syndicate can be formed.
The Malaysian government, on the other hand, has to ensure that the employers in their country do not pick agencies which exploit the workers' desperation."
Middle East and its booming labour market
Malaysia is not the only destination for Bangladeshi migrants. It is believed that almost 8 million Bangladeshis live in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) house the largest Bangladeshi diasporas in the region, comprising 2.5 million and 1.2 million migrants.
But the region still requires migrant labour to function.
Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE account for over 10% of all migrants globally, while Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates host respectively the third and fifth largest migrant populations in the world.
In fact, in Qatar and the UAE, 80% of the population are migrant workers. As a result, it is expected that the Bangladeshi diasporas in that region would thrive and enrich the country further through their remittances.
But this has not been the case. Yes, Bangladesh does receive an enormous sum from the hard earned money of the migrant workers but that pales in comparison with the economic potential present in those countries.
For example, besides Bangladeshis, Indians are one of the largest diasporas in the UAE. Currently, 3,41,000 Indians are residing in the country, far fewer than the number of Bangladeshis in the country.
Yet, India received $13.82 billion from the UAE in remittance earnings in 2017 whereas Bangladesh only earned $2.42 billion during the same period. Even in the past financial year, Bangladesh only managed to earn $2.43 billion.
If Bangladesh has more migrant workers than India in the UAE, then why are we earning so much less? This is due to the skill disparity between the Bangladeshi and Indian migrants.
Around 40% of Indians in the UAE are white collar professionals. Over 25% of Indian workers in the UAE were engaged in manufacturing, transport and related professions, while 20% were engaged in professional and technical fields.
Besides the usual employment based migration, Indian entrepreneurs are also changing the business landscape of the UAE. Successful companies like Lulu Group International, Landmark Group, Amber Packaging Industries and Jumbo Electronics - all were created by Indian entrepreneurs living in the UAE.
Bangladesh, on the other hand, primarily exports unskilled labourers who have to work in back-breakingly difficult and dangerous conditions for very low salary. In fact, 46.52% of Bangladeshi labourers who migrated between 1976 to 2019 were unskilled while only 1.84% were professionals.
According to Dr Abrar, there are many reasons behind this phenomenon. "Private recruitment agencies do not cater to our skilled youth", he remarked, "A skilled and educated worker will not agree to pay exorbitant fees to go to a country, but an unskilled worker will. That is why they are the primary demographic for these recruitment agencies."
Dr Abrar also believes that the training provided to migrant workers is inadequate and obsolete. "We do not train people according to market demand. We should have focused on developing workers ready for the tourism and hospitality sector, the caregiving industry and the IT sector- which were booming before the pandemic", Dr Abrar added, "But we, instead, provide rudimentary training for working in construction. We are actively training people for low-paying jobs".
But this policy has started to shift in recent times.
The government has decided to construct 40 more training facilities, emphasising on developing technological skills. If we can make our workers skilled and reduce the harassment caused by the middle-men, Bangladesh will be able to significantly increase its earnings from remittance.