Even though it charges the lowest for finding jobs abroad, the state-owned Bangladesh Overseas Employment and Services Limited (BOESL) could send out only 0.8% of the country's total migrant workers in more than three decades showing its weak hold on the market.
Providing safe migration and access to decent work is the motto of the organisation but it does not have much to show in both counts because of bureaucracy, a lack of funds and its limited capacity to explore job markets.
BOESL has sent abroad only 1.05 lakh workers since its inception in 1984, whereas the country's total exported manpower is 1.30 crore during the same period. That means recruiting agencies and middlemen are more successful in sending manpower abroad, squeezing out very high processing fees from the job seekers.
The government agency sends workers to Jordan and South Korea exclusively, privileged with government to government deals. It has sent workers to some 30 other countries as well.
About seven lakh workers went abroad every year on average in the last one decade until the country was struck by Covid-19, but the only state-owned manpower exporting company sent around 10,000 workers annually over the last five years. Earlier, the figure was even less than that.
Against the backdrop of worldwide travel restrictions in the pandemic, 2.17 lakh workers flew out of the country to join work last year. BOESL, on its part, sent 8,825 workers abroad from July 2019 to June 2020.
Shariful Hasan, head of Brac Migration Programme, said that had BOESL sent one lakh workers each year, private recruiting agencies would have been compelled to lower their fees because of the competition.
BOESL has been successful in ensuring corruption-free migration, said Tasneem Siddiqui, founder chair of the Refugee and Migratory Movement Research Unit (RMMRU).
"We have no record of any worker employed through BOESL being cheated. It is a tremendous achievement. Now, the challenge is to send more workers."
What is needed to expand corruption-free migration
The precondition to finding jobs is having connection to employers.
BOESL Company Secretary Md Abdus Sobhan said the company did not have timely information about overseas jobs.
"Private agencies work with middlemen in destination countries who help them find jobs, but we do not have such networking. Our foreign missions did not get us the expected job information," he added.
Dr Ahmed Munirus Saleheen, chairman of BOESL and secretary of the Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment Ministry, said migration cost would go up if BOESL also engaged middlemen to find job openings like the private agencies which would go against the concept of the organisation.
But Tasneem Siddiqui of RMMRU thinks BOESL could not come out of the entrenched bureaucratic mindset. "It does not have enough freedom to work in the sector competing with private recruiting agencies," she said.
"The private agencies conduct aggressive marketing in destination countries. BOESL doesn't have the funds and capacity to respond fast," Tasneem added.
Dr Ahmed Munirus, however, trashed the idea of any bureaucratic tangle.
He said BOESL recently took an initiative to send workers to the big job markets, as taxi drivers in the United Aran Emirates for example. "Efforts are on to send workers to Malaysia as soon as it opens its job market."
Tasneem suggested appointing people from the private sector on contract to run BOESL replacing bureaucrats and setting a migration target.
"That will show how it is possible to send a large number of migrants without middlemen."
Successes achieved so far
BOESL takes service charges from selected job seekers on "No profit no loss basis".
Its service charge ranges from Tk12,000 to Tk68,000 depending on categories of jobs, countries and situation, whereas private agencies charge anywhere between Tk2.6 lakh to Tk4 lakh from Middle East-bound workers.
However, BOESL has mostly targeted jobs in Jordan and South Korea under government-to-government deals.
Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira) said BOESL enjoyed monopoly in those destinations.
"We are not getting permission from the government to send workers to those destinations. The sector would not flourish if a company had a monopoly in a particular country," said Shamim Ahmed Chowdhury Noman, former secretary general of Baira.
He was skeptical if BOESL would be able to send workers at low cost to a destination where recruiting agencies also had access.
BOESL Chairman Dr Ahmed Munirus says it was the destination countries that chose to work with BOESL.
"Otherwise, it was unlikely to stand a chance with private recruiting agencies."
BOESL sent workers to around 30 countries, a majority of them to Jordan and South Korea.
The company started sending skilled female garment workers in 2010 and sent 60,675 workers to Jordan at a migration cost of TK17,750 when employers bore the airfare.
South Korea is the second largest destination where BOESL has been sending workers under the employment permit system (EPS) stipulated in a Memorandum of Understanding signed by Bangladesh and South Korea.
The company has sent 21,260 workers to South Korea till 2020, charging each Tk34,000 for its service.