Since 2001, 18 December in every year has been observed worldwide including Bangladesh as International Migrants Day (IMD). The day has been observed by different public and private organizations with due diligence to recognize the contribution of migrant workers to their origin and host country’s economy as well as to highlight all the initiatives adopted to establish their rights and dignity.
Though the Ministry of Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment support as the key body remain responsible to take initiative for the observance of the day, however different non-governmental development agencies, jointly with the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (BAIRA) and financial institutions and banks also participated in the event. While fewer expatriate workers and their families have taken part in the celebration programs, yet majority of the migrant community remain exclude as lack of knowledge on the significance of the day. Regrettably, majority of these migrants community are not acknowledged on their rights as well as services they are entitled regarding their welfare.
According to BMET, every year an average 500 to 600 thousand people leave Bangladesh as overseas worker, including female workers. Though fewer workers been able to migrate this year due to the Corona pandemic situation, labor migration from Bangladesh is still in process as per the demand of different host countries. However, it is assume that, over 10 million migrant workers are living outside of Bangladesh in different countries, which indicates at least 30-40 million people either directly or indirectly dependent economically on these workers. Recently our Foreign Currency Reserve has broken all previous records because of the remittances sent by all these less educated or semi-skilled workers, which trend is still increasing.
To protect the migrant workers and their family members socially as well as economically from instinct situation during COVID 19 pandemic, the Bangladesh government has taken a number of initiatives which was certainly been essential to embrace. Hence, as a part of COVID response, the Bangladesh government distributed relief and emergency gift items among migrant workers living abroad as well as in Bangladesh, provided emergency financial assistance to returnee migrants, and even started to distribution of special rehabilitation loan package worth taka 5 billion for returnee migrants. However, the challenges still remain in the strategy espoused to implement the initiatives counted and ensure transparency in welfare services. Moreover, the sources of government allocations became an issue to consider on which the migrant workers must need to discern.
During applying for manpower clearance from BMET, each migrant worker or their employer has to pay a certain amount of fees to the government fund which is better known as welfare fee, though majority of these outbound workers do not have any idea for the fees. Moreover, these poor fellow has little idea on welfare services for them and their families that government provides through different bodies including the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET) and the Wage Earners Welfare Board (WEWB). Although some of them receives such services with the help of NGOs and development agencies, mainstream migrant workers and families are remain in dark or somehow are not interested to receive such services.
Critical analysis of last few years’ statistics between expenditure of government for migrants welfare and fees collection from migrants could depict the nature of welfare activities and fund allocation.
As we know, migrant workers has to pay a welfare fee of taka 3,500 each to the government fund, either by themselves or by their agency, which ultimately become a huge amount considering the number of migrants per year. Reviewing the annual reports and statistics of BMET and Wage Earners Welfare Board, it could summarize that, between the year 2015 and 2019, the amount deposited in migrants Welfare Fund is more than the amount spent for their welfare (including burial of deceased worker, financial assistance, children's education scholarship, etc.). For example, the amount spent (for welfare) in 2016 was approximately Tk. 2175.46 million, against the deposited welfare fee was Tk. 2652.05 million. Similarly, in 2016, 2017 and 2019, the expenditure was taka 1642.94 million, taka 1934.44 million and taka 1994.83 million respectively, against which the welfare fee collected was estimated taka 3529.83 million, taka 2569.63 million and 2450.55 million respectively (Source: BMET and Wage Earners Welfare Board). The situation is also similar in case of number of migrant workers dead body received between 2015 and 2019 and number of families received death compensation or burial cost. Therefore, we could say, the welfare expenses being met from the funds generated from the fees that each migrant workers deposited while getting manpower clearance, and government never felt the necessity to allocate or keep separate fund for expatriate welfare or emergency support services.
The rehabilitation loans are being disbursed from the Expatriate Welfare Bank where the 5 billion taka loan funds has been sourced from Expatriate Welfare Board, which is ultimately the money of migrant workers. Disappointingly, it has been observed that, the loan funds remain useless for the development of returnee migrants, however in some cases the migrants lost their interest to receive such services. Apart from this, the ministerial budgetary allocation for legal aid support to destitute migrant workers are poor along with other welfare support services.
Besides, the migrants and their family members are not educated on documentation or fill-up different forms to receive entitled welfare services, hence depends on others or government staffs for such services which ultimately delay the process to receive welfare services and create opportunity for percolation of wicked middlemen. Truly speaking, the government's efforts to raise public awareness or educate the community on migrants’ welfare services are very limited. As a result, the migrant communities are being deprived of receiving government welfare services that they are entitled to.
Therefore, a question may raise - will only the migrant worker have to pay from own pocket for their own welfare, or will not the government allocate revenue fund for migrants welfare services? The national budget always kept a small allocation for Expatriate Welfare Ministry as well as for welfare activities, rather the lion's share being spent on administrative or infrastructural sectors. If we want to continue the flow of remittances and increase the foreign reserve, it is a pressing need to allocate separate budget or funds for welfare activities from government exchequer apart from funds generated by migrants for Wage Earners Welfare Board and ensure accountability and transparency of the welfare activities.
Aminul Hoque Tushar is Migration and Development Activist