Thursday, April 19, 2012

ESCAP Report on our expatriates: A wakeup call

M. Serajul Islam
As I see it Column
The Independent
April 14, 2012 

The report recently released by ESCAP on recruiting system for overseas employment of a number of countries including Bangladesh reveals a saga of suffering for our expatriates that is pretty well known but has never been addressed. Those responsible for affairs related to our expatriates spare no efforts to loudly acclaim the billions of US dollars that our expatriates send every year as remittance as if the much needed money comes to the country because of their initiatives. The fact that these fellow citizens of ours literally place their lives on line for sending the remittance home is never even acknowledged let alone  be addressed. 

Among the countries named in the ESCAP Report, we are the only one that has a separate Ministry to look after our expatriates. The Ministry in fact has been “affectionately” named as Ministry for Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment. Yet if an objective survey is made on how much welfare our expatriates receive from this Ministry, the answer would not be a very surprising one. These days, all the private TV channels run regular programs on our expatriates where they speak of their lives. They say that they receive little to no help or assistance from this Ministry. 

Yet it is very sad because the misfortunes our expatriates suffer are very much within the competence of the Government to resolve. The fact that instead the Government makes such loud claims for the remittance is like adding insult to the injury. The ESCAP Report has identified some of the reasons for the misfortunes of expatriates suffer in their saga to a job overseas; a job that they dream would open their doors from abject poverty to prosperity. The most serious of these situations is the role that manpower agents and middlemen play in their efforts to go abroad.  

The Report has revealed that our expatriates who go for the ordinary jobs in the Middle East and Malaysia usually end up paying to the middlemen and manpower agents twice the Taka 84,000 fixed by the Government. The loan sharks add to their misery by charging 10% monthly interest on their loans! Thus when these unfortunate people land in their “dream” jobs, they are usually up to their necks in loans   to the middlemen, unscrupulous manpower agents and loan sharks. 

The Report has stated that a majority of our expatriates in these countries end up paying all they earn for the first two years of their employment overseas repay their debts. In desperation, many of them try to land a second job that is not just illegal but one these unfortunate people are forced to take literally by putting their lives on the line. Many also abandon their jobs for hope of a better paying job that is also illegal. When many complete their contracts, they turn into illegal immigrants in the hope of a better paying job. In Saudi Arabia alone, there are over 200,000 Bangladeshis who have fallen on the wrong side of the law and are running from authorities. Our Prime Minister tried to resolve this issue, that of the Ikama, on her first visit to Saudi Arabia in early 2009. The Foreign Minister has since stated a few times that the Saudis have given assurance that this grave problem would be resolved. So far nothing has happened. 

While we hear the good stories of remittance, we do not even bother to look into the unfortunate predicament of these expatriates many of whom die premature as a result of the predicament into which they are forced because at home our authorities turn a blind eye to the great burden of loan with which they leave the country. The ESCAP Report has named the manpower agents as the main source of the sufferings of the prospective expatriates. These manpower agents offer the jobs, prepare the travel documentations and in this process, subject the job seekers to exploitation and deceit. There is no protection for them when they fall prey to the manpower agents except what the legal system offers that does nothing for the victim. 

The ESCAP Report should make the Government think seriously the fate of these expatriates whose remittance is one reason for Bangladesh’s substantial economic strength with potential to contribute more. The US$ 12 billion that our expatriates sent last year is half of the amount they actually remitted where the other half was lost to the illegal Hundi system. Of the huge sum that comes as official remittance, less than 10% remains in the banks as deposits or comes to the economy as investments.  

At a time when the banks are running from pillar to post for deposits, it is a matter of utmost failure of the banking system that they have not been able to take advantage of such a humungous sum of money that should have been the cheapest source of their much needed and sought after deposits. Instead the remittance money enters the market directly in a way that causes negative impact on the economy such as increasing inflation. If part of the remittance could be invested with the Government’s help, the results could be an economic miracle for the country and the poor people who send the money with such inhuman efforts, the beneficiaries. 

The economics of manpower export is literally a gold mine for Bangladesh that has been treated by the concerned authorities most insensitively and casually perhaps because majority of our expatriates are poor and under privileged. They have been left literally at the mercy of manpower agents and loan sharks with the government leaning on the side of the exploiters. It is time to bring justice to the sector to allow it to realize its full potentials to assist the economy much more than what it is doing now. 

The starting point should be to give legal strength to this sector. Existing laws are not even remotely adequate. New laws should be legislated so that those who cheat and exploit the overseas job seekers are punished in an exemplary way.  While it is common knowledge that the manpower agents are the  common cause of a great deal of misfortune for the overseas job seekers, so far one has not heard such agency/agencies being blacklisted or brought to face the law.

The Banks should be brought into the loop to take out the loan sharks out of business by advancing loans to the job seekers. The Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare should work with the Foreign Ministry and the Embassies to ensure that our workers are not subjected to discrimination at their place of work as all other manpower exporting countries do.  

The ESCAP Report has mentioned that Kuwait and Malaysia have stopped recruiting Bangladeshis as they have found forged documents in their papers prepared by the manpower agents. This is a wakeup call for the Government. The future of this critical sector is at cross roads. Unless the Government wakes to the serious faults facing the sector, some highlighted in the Report, the lucrative manpower export business of Bangladesh could be facing serious setbacks due to the receiving countries shutting their doors on our expatriates because our government is blind to the serious faults in the system.  

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan nd Egypt

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