Stakeholders have called for efforts to reduce labour migration cost and make the process hassle-free as Bangladeshi workers, compared to those in major labour sourcing countries, pay more to get overseas jobs and earn less.
They told a roundtable on Thursday that Bangladesh is still not performing well in protecting the rights of its migrants at destinations although neighbouring countries such as India, Nepal and Sri Lanka do not send their people abroad on hostile terms.
The roundtable, titled "Fair Recruitment: An Agenda for Action to Ensure Paradigm Shift in Labour Migration Sector" and jointly organised by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and The Business Standard in Dhaka, came up with some major recommendations, such as recognising middlemen in migration processing, removal of recruiters' syndication and illicit visa selling, reducing high airfares, providing government subsidy to some extent and digitalisation of the entire labour migration process.
Advocating for recognising middlemen in labour migration, DataSense Chief Imaginator Ananya Raihan said middlemen and relatives often play a more crucial role than recruiting agencies.
"The aspirant migrants have to pay the middlemen at home for document processing and other purposes, which ultimately push up migration costs," said the keynote speaker, as he argued for legalising the brokers, which would help check overcharging and ensure labour safety abroad.
He emphasised a no-cost-to-workers approach.
Bangladesh is one of the handful countries that enjoyed more than $20 billion annual remittances even amid the pandemic-led global slowdown, which rejuvenated the country's economy. According to government data, 6-7 lakh Bangladeshis go abroad for jobs, especially in the Gulf States. The average migration cost for a Bangladeshi is Tk4.16 lakh as such migrants, with only Tk23,093 monthly salary, require more than 17.6 months on average to recoup the migration cost.
The programme discussed fair recruitment that generally refers to recruitment carried out within the law, in line with international labour standards, with respect for human rights, without discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity, national or legal status, with no cost to workers and with protection from exploitative situations.
In contrast, the stakeholders mentioned some indicators that suggest unfair recruitment of Bangladeshi workers. The indicators include threats and intimidation by the employers, verbal and psychological abuse, limited freedom of movement, retention of identity documents, physical and sexual violence, recruitment below working age and recruitment to hazardous and unsafe work.
Referring to passport difficulties at home, Shamim Ahmed Chowdhury Noman, former secretary general of the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira), said, "If an aspirant migrant has a national identity card, why would he have to wait for at least one month for police clearance before the passport issuance?"
The ex-recruiting agency leader also underscored establishing one-stop service points for migrants and forming a coordination cell linking the government agencies concerned.
Md Shahidul Alam, director general of the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET), commented that the recruiting agencies are not interested in recognising the middlemen, while the bureau looks toward bringing the brokers into formal registration.
He said the bureau is adopting a paradigm shift to accommodate qualitative changes to labour migration and develop an information database of the recruiting agencies.
He stressed acquiring technical education so that the country could become a source of a skilled labour force from the current unskilled labour sourcing destination.
Asif Munier, an ILO consultant, said, "If we can ensure good governance, the invisible labour migration costs in different government levels can be avoided. Besides, honouring the recruiters and recognition of the middlemen can make the sector more transparent."
Referring to Bangladesh's skyrocketing airfares, Syed Saiful Haque, chairman of WARBE Development Foundation, said costly migration deters sending skilled workers abroad.
He said the government does not have any budget for the funding of the Wage Earners' Welfare Board, as the migrant workers are now paying for it.
Rajekuzzaman Ratan, member of the Labour Migration Group of National Coordination Committee on Workers Education, said subsidies for labour migration would not cost the government more than Tk700 crore per year.
"If the teacher recruitment has a waiting list with registered candidates, then why should there not be such a list for aspirant migrants," he raised the question.
Meanwhile, Sheepa Hafiza, executive director at Ain O Salish Kendro, shed light on the social cost of women migration.
Nazia Haider, Safer Migration program manager at the Embassy of Switzerland in Bangladesh, said political commitment is very important for the safety of female migrants to the destination countries.
Shabari Nair, migration policy specialist at ILO in South Asia, said, "Unfortunately the recruitment agencies do not have trust with the workers. If recruiters want to change the perception that people have of them, they need to show and build trust."
Shariful Hasan, head of the Brac Migration Programme, said, "If we can ensure digitalisation in migration, both workers and employers will be equally benefited and more transparency will be ensured."
In his welcome speech, The Business Standard Editor Inam Ahmed said, "We have some laws to regulate the sector, but those are still not enough. Because of our demographic dividend, our labour export will continue for some time."
He said the authorities should pay more attention to the "highly fragmented sector" so that Bangladeshi workers are recruited fairly for overseas jobs.
The Business Standard Executive Editor Sharier Khan delivered the closing remarks, while ILO Consultant Asif Munier moderated the event.
Among others, Asif Ayub, joint secretary general of the Bangladesh Employers Federation, Shakirul Islam, chairman of the Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program, and recruiter Tipu Sultan also spoke at the event.
The event was supported by the "Application of Migration Policy for Decent Work for Migrant Workers" project funded by the Government of Switzerland.