Two good news hogged the headlines last week – commodity and manpower exports have broken any single-month record.
Both give us some relief from the anxiety that forex reserves have been dipping and Bangladesh taka weakening.
If one peels off the details of the commodity and manpower exports, more interesting and comforting facts present themselves.
First, let us look at manpower export. It had hovered around the 5 lakh plus/minus workers annually for quite some years until reaching the 1 million mark in 2017. From then on it kept on sliding by about 30% for the next two years and then dipping to just above 2 lakh workers in 2020 when Covid was in full swing.
So getting manpower exports back on track is heartening in the first place. But besides that it shows a lot of other sides of migration as well.
It proves countries that want migrant workers cannot avoid Bangladesh. Saudi Arabia thought otherwise and shed a lot of workers in 2017 when it adopted a policy of generating more domestic employment. But that policy did not work, it simply did not have enough youths willing to work at low wages to construct buildings in Riyadh and Mecca and Medina.
Malaysia had to open its door to Bangladeshi workers after a long pause. There was no other choice because Malaysia could no longer afford to do its development without our masons and plumbers.
There are a few reasons why our workers have become so much indispensable and demography is one of them. Over 80% of our workers going abroad are in the age bracket of 15 to 39 years. Incidentally, in our population graph this same age group has been growing the fastest.
This means, we have an abundance of supply of workers for foreign countries to draw on.
A comparison with other manpower exporting countries show their population growth on this age bracket is slowing. So it is natural that importing countries have no choice but to look towards Bangladesh if they have to get migrant workers.
Another bright side of manpower export is that there has been a slow but significant change in the categories of workers Bangladesh has been sending abroad, if the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) figures are to be believed. Until 2019, 34.54% of workers who went abroad for job were skilled which increased to 43.55% in 2019.
It is implausible that such a huge proportion of workers we send abroad are skilled. The figure was certainly derived by the way the BMET has set its standard of "skill".
However, given that the same standard applies, there still is a shift in workers' category.
But there is a catch even in this bright picture.
Bangladesh has probably not been able to capture its strength in manpower export and so has not been able to negotiate better terms for its workers. The Philippines, India and even Nepal bargain hard on wages and facilities.
Bangladesh has not been able to get workers' insurance from employers. The insurance our workers get is from the Wage Earners Welfare Board. But then it is actually the workers who pay for the insurance.
Now, let us look at the other good news of higher exports again driven by apparel. It has now been well proven that there are very few alternatives to Bangladesh when it comes to sourcing apparels. China is the unparalleled leader here but its apparel exports are slowly waning and would fall faster in future as China's economy becomes more advanced. That leaves us the only shining star.
A slightly hopeful side of the exports figures is that the share of apparel in the total export basket has been consistently coming down for the last four years from as high as 84.2% in FY19 to 80.6% in FY22 (July-December).
This means the much needed export diversification has been taking place but at a slow pace. After garments, Bangladesh has all the potential to become a home appliance sourcing market. Walton, a domestic home appliance giant, already has set the goal to be one of the top global brands in the next nine years.