Overseas employment is one of the major sectors of the economy of Bangladesh. Ensuring the welfare of expatriate Bangladeshis, recognizing the outstanding contribution and rights of Bangladeshi migrant workers, and providing strategic guidance for conducting smooth, transparent, accountable and dynamic activities in the immigration sector is essential to increase overseas employment opportunities.
After the independence of the country, an agreement was reached with the Muslim countries of the Middle East on foreign employment and sending workers through diplomatic activities aimed at reviving the economy of war-torn Bangladesh. In its continuation, the migration of Bangladeshi workers to Middle East countries started from the mid-seventies.
In view of the increasing trend of labor-migration and in recognition of the contribution of Bangladeshi and migrant workers, a separate Ministry was formed in 2001 titled "Ministry of Expatriate's Welfare and Overseas Employment" to manage all activities related to labor migration management and welfare. The protection of the rights of migrant workers is one of the most important issues in the international arena. In this context, Bangladesh ratified the UN Charter on Migrant Workers in 2011.
After ratification of the International Charter, the issues of labor migration management, rights, protection and welfare of migrant workers and their families came to the fore and there was a need and obligation to change and amend the existing laws and regulations. In order to create opportunities for overseas employment, to introduce safe and equitable labor migration system, to ensure the rights and welfare of all migrant workers and their family members and to bring them in line with the harmonized and other labor and human rights instruments ratified by Bangladesh Overseas Employment and Migrants Act, 2013 was enacted.
The SDG target on immigration has been set in recognition of the importance and role of migration in national and global development adopted by the United Nations in 2015. Bangladesh has achieved unprecedented success in implementing the MDGs adopted by the United Nations. The 6th and the 7th Five-Year Plan provide clear guidelines for the smooth running of the labor migration sector, ensuring the safety and welfare of migrant workers, and the development of skilled human resources.
As a result of various initiatives taken by the Ministry of Expatriate's Welfare and Overseas Employment and gender sensitive activities aimed at encouraging overseas employment, the rate of outbound migration of female migrant workers from Bangladesh to new destinations and professions has recently increased rapidly. Destination countries are also easing their labor-immigration laws and paying more attention to workers' safety.
On the other hand, new challenges are emerging, including the violation of foreign employment agreements by Bangladeshi workers and the exploitation and torture on workers, which is hampering the protection of migrant workers. In order to diversify the performance of women and provide them with overall empowerment and protection and to exploit the new possibilities of sending women workers for overseas employment, the government seeks to implement gender sensitive policies and programs.
In Bangladesh, labor migration has emerged as an important economic factor in policy-making in both small and macroeconomic sectors. At present, remittances amount to about six per cent of GDP, which has enriched the country's foreign exchange reserves and stabilized the foreign exchange rate. Trade in the service sector is now an established global issue. Due to the expansion of this sector, the opportunities for foreign employment for Bangladeshi women and men workers are likely to continue to increase.
On the other hand, there is a need to diversify the skills and experience of Bangladeshi migrant workers to meet the challenges posed by structural changes in the demand for skilled labor. In this case, Bangladesh has to work together with other countries to protect its own interests. The Foreign Employment Policy is a continuation of various initiatives taken by the concern ministry in recent years to uphold the right of all citizens to free choice of profession.
According to the provisions of Articles 19, 20 and 40 of the Constitution, it is the responsibility of the state to develop human resources, ensure equal opportunities and freedom of choice for all citizens, men and women, and assist in the creation of qualified employment. The main goal of the current policy is to encourage and ensure self-employed overseas employment through safe and dignified migration, which will accelerate national growth and development, increase the living standards of migrant workers and their families and ensure overall social security, and help alleviate unemployment and poverty.
One of the goals of this policy is to introduce a rights-based protection system for migrant workers by recognizing their outstanding contribution to the national economy and improving the quality of life of their families. To this end, the government is committed to creating an environment through the "Expatriate's Welfare and Overseas Employment Policy 2016" that recognizes the dignity of every worker, inculcates tolerance, empathy and respect for migrant workers and works to create decent employment for all responsible and concerned.
Less skilled migrant workers are mostly at risk. They are victims of exploitation, oppression and human rights abuses at home and abroad. In view of this fact, efforts should be made to strengthen the legal system to protect them. However, the main challenge is the proper application of the law. The continued trend of increasing labor migration from Bangladesh has put pressure on labor migration management. The recent increase in the number of migrant workers has also led to an increase in exploitation, harassment and breach of employment contracts by migrant workers.
Considering that increasing, the opportunities for foreign employment and protecting migrants, balancing these two goals will be the main challenge in adopting policies and programs for future labor migration. Immigrant workers are subjected to irregular migration, violence, harassment, exploitation, and trafficking of middlemen due to lack of information on migration costs and benefits of migration, rights and responsibilities of migrant workers, facilities provided to them by public and private authorities, and adequacy of work abroad.
In addition, family members of migrant workers left in the country, in particular childrens are more likely to be physically and emotionally abused and sexually abused. Most of the workers are less educated and many of them take risks and travel abroad for employment outside the informal media and government registration process. Bangladesh's legal, political and social policies and the various international instruments ratified by Bangladesh call for the prevention of discrimination against women workers and the protection of their rights.
But ensuring the practice and implementation of these policies is a challenge. Lack of access to information is one of the problems faced by women workers. Despite the recent initiative of free training, women workers face various difficulties in getting admission in suitable training institutes, getting job opportunities, getting basic information and enhancing their skills.
The various agencies and organizations engaged in providing labor migration protection and co-operation needs to follow gender-sensitive policies in their activities. In order to increase the migration rate of women, Bangladeshi missions abroad need to place special responsibilities on the labor officers and labor wing of the embassy and other government and non-government organizations.
In order to properly assess and recognize the unique contribution of migration to the global context and economic and social development of Bangladesh, it is imperative to incorporate labor migration policy into the overall economy or sector-based and other social and labor related policy frameworks. Considering the economic importance of remittances, there is a need to provide various incentive supports and service arrangements for remittance senders in order to keep its flow regular and legal.
At the national level, however, the role of labor migration and remittances in reducing poverty, reducing social spending, raising foreign exchange reserves, increasing the country's import-capacity, reducing the economic deficit, reducing the country's unemployment rate and setting up agro-housing-industry and joint venture-based businesses research is needed. It is also possible to reduce the cost of sending remittances from abroad through various well-planned measures.
Md Arafat Rahman is a Columnist & Asst. Officer, Career & Professional Development Services Department, Southeast University.