With some countries having closed the door for workers from Bangladesh, the government now targets new markets in Cambodia, Hong Kong, Romania, Poland and a few African countries
At a time when other indicators of Bangladesh economy, including export earnings and private sector credit growth, are experiencing a downtrend, the remittance flow keeps shinning.
This has been possible because of the Bangladeshi migrant workers, who sent $16.66 billion as of November.
Remittance inflow may reach record $18.19 billion at the end of this year.
In the outgoing decade, the migrant workers have sent over $130 billion – the highest in recent decades.
Thus, after farmers and RMG migrant workers are another group of heroes who are the drivers of our economic growth engine even though they stay abroad.
They have continuously been playing a significant role in reducing poverty, improving living standard and strengthening our foreign exchange reserve.
Backed by their contribution, Bangladesh ranked as the ninth highest remittance receiving country in the world and third in South Asia, according to a World Bank report released in April this year.
For years, the remittances sent by migrant workers have remained the second largest source of our foreign currency earnings – after readymade garments.
The contribution of around 1 crore migrant workers to our economic growth is widely discussed. Bangladesh averaged 6 percent growth in the last one decade.
At the beginning of the 2010s Bangladesh crossed the $10 billion milestone in remittance. The migrant workers have since sent on average $10 billion every year although overseas employment has fluctuated over the last decade.
The inward remittance saw a sharp increase because of the government's cash incentives for sending remittance through banking channels.
The robust remittance flow appears a good news for the government at a time when other economic indicators are experiencing a downward trend.
The first significant migration from Bangladesh started in the 1960s when the UK opened its doors for immigrants.
But short-term migration for employment is said to have started in the 1970s, picking up the pace by the end of the 1980s.
The momentum quickened again during the 2000s, with a sharp increase in the flow in 2005. However, this was short-lived.
The number of workers going abroad hovered roughly around 5 lakh annually. The key destination countries included Bahrain, Kuwait, Malaysia, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates.
After 2007, the mix of these countries for workers from Bangladesh has changed, with a sharp decline in the flow to Kuwait, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia.
This contraction was counterbalanced to some extent by a rise in the flow of workers to Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, and Singapore.
Sending workers to Saudi Arabia was closed in 2008. It was reopened in 2015.
Sending workers to Malaysia was closed in 2018, to the UAE in 2013, and to Libya in 2010.
DM Atiqur Rahman, director (Employment) of the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training, however, said, "Migrant employees are going to Malaysia and the UAE in professional categories. So, we cannot say these market are closed at all.
"Manpower markets in Cambodia, Hong Kong, Romania, Poland and a few African countries have opened in the past one decade."
In the past, the number of female migrant workers from Bangladesh was very negligible, but the annual trend rose consistently during 2000-2012. Now, around 1 lakh female migrant workers go abroad every year.
The other side of the story
Over the years, we have been able to send a large number of workers to various countries.
Bangladesh has ranked 6th among the countries of origin of migrant workers. However, it did not have any berth among the top 10 remittance-receiving countries.
Bangladesh was among the top 10 remittance-receiving nations in 2010 and 2015, according to the World Migration Report 2020 of the International Organisation for Migration released in November.
Sending unskilled migrant workers is the main reason for the low remittance flow when it comes to comparing Bangladesh with other top remittance-receiving nations, experts said.
Despite increased inflow of remittance in 2019, labour migration from Bangladesh has declined by about 10 percent compared to the previous year, according to a report of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit.
Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment Minister Imran Ahmed said, "The old destinations for overseas jobs are shrinking every year. Our government is trying to find new markets in Croatia, Romania, Poland and Uganda."
He expressed hope that remittance flow will increase more in the days to come.
"Still, more than 40 percent of our migrant workers are unskilled. So, the government targets to build a skilled manpower. We have taken initiatives to train workers," the minister said.
No data on migrant returnees
A large number of Bangladeshi migrant workers have been sent back in the last decade. But the government has no data on these returnees.
"We have sufficient data of employed migrant workers but we do not have data on the returnees. We are in the process of creating a new database of migrant returnees," said Ahmed Munirus Saleheen, an additional secretary of the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment.
Shariful Hasan, head of the Brac Migration Programme, said more than 5 lakh undocumented migrant workers were sent back to Bangladesh in the last 10 years.
Female workers' migration in last decade
Since 1976, more than 12.50 crore Bangladeshis have gone abroad for work, according to the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training.
Official statistics show that overseas employment opportunities for Bangladeshi female workers formally started in 1991.
Data of the manpower bureau shows that 770,852 Bangladeshi female workers went abroad for work in the last decade.
However, a large number of them were also sent back during the period – mostly from Saudi Arabia.
According to the Brac Migration Programme, around 13,000 women returned from Saudi Arabia in the last four years. Many of them reported abuse and non-payment.
According to the Brac Migration Programme, many bodies of migrant workers arrived in the last decade and the number of dead bodies kept increasing.
A total of 32,070 dead bodies of migrant workers have been received at three international airports of the country in the last decade.
In 2010, the figure was 2,560. The number of deceased workers was 3,668 as of November this year. In 2018, it was 3,793.
Brac's Migration Head Shariful Islam Hasan said, "Adverse working environment, excessive workload, poor living conditions, heart attack and stroke caused by mental stress were behind most of these deaths.
"Some others were killed in accidents, a few committed suicide or were murdered."
Future of overseas employment
Every year migrant workers send back $500 billion in remittances to their home countries, according to an estimate by the World Bank.
The backlash against globalisation is growing and an anti-immigration sentiment is rising in many developed countries. So, it is possible that both migration and the capital flow that it drives could begin to ebb, said the Financial Times in a report in August this year.
But the World Bank expects 550 million or 55 crore people to join the workforces of low and middle-income countries between now and 2030. That means job opportunities abroad will continue to look attractive.
What Bangladesh needs to do is develop its manpower with proper training to tap the potentials.