Ensuring Migrant Welfare in a Pandemic: The Role of Labour Diplomacy

Written by: Chowdhury Noshin Tabassum

Each year, more than 700,000 workers leave Bangladesh for overseas employment. The problems faced by Bangladeshi migrants include high fees for migration charged by recruitment agencies (especially for low skilled jobs), low wages, lack of information on migration opportunities and risks, discrimination, exploitation and abuse while overseas, and insufficient services to protect the rights of workers. Around 80 lac Bangladeshis work in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, according to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training. Many of these migrant workers have been passing days in distress after many lost their jobs due to the lockdown imposed on the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. The migrants have been quarantined at camps or were asked to stay home to prevent the spread of the virus. Bangladesh braced itself to receive home hundreds of thousands of migrant workers laid off in their host countries since then. According to BRAC, around 200,000 Bangladeshi migrant workers returned home between mid-February and mid-March of 2020 from the Middle Eastern countries alone. Bangladesh was under diplomatic pressure following the coronavirus outbreak over repatriation of Bangladeshi migrant workers from those countries.

Labour diplomacy refers to the endorsement and incorporation of migrant labour issues in the foreign policy of a country by promoting the labour standards and employment goals of the country and evaluation of the labour rights of the country by the international actors.  It is done by playing an important role in providing information, insights and analyses. This helps provide an assessment of the economic conditions faced by migrant workers and identify factors that can contribute to resolving problems, by providing a framework for developing tools to combat these problems 

Even after all these years, the government has had no immediate response to the plight of Bangladeshi migrant workers in the Middle East. After heated debates and public protests in the parliament over the inhuman treatment of workers in the destination country, the Prime Minister’s Office prepared a report in January 2020 stating that more than 7.5 lac workers living in Saudi Arabia were in fear of arrest and deportation. Half of the more than 15 lac workers in the country lost their jobs after their work permit had expired, leaving them undocumented, an issue that was exacerbated when the pandemic hit. Many workers have returned home battered and exploited, having spent more than 3 lacs on migration and many days in foreign jails. They were also exploited by deceitful recruiting agents and exploitative local employers in the Gulf countries. 

Beside all these issues, there is also the question of widely reported cases of sexual abuse and tortures on the female migrant workers – questions that are still left unanswered. The expatriate welfare and overseas employment ministry mentions their being unaware of such reports. The Prime Minister’s Office has prepared a comprehensive report saying a stronger monitoring system and regulatory framework is needed to stop the deception of workers who are going abroad. It came up with a clear directive to attend to the sufferings of the workers in Saudi Arabia, but no decisive action has so far been taken to ensure their smooth repatriation, as of 2020.

The Middle East is the main source of Bangladesh’s remittances and its second-largest foreign currency source after the garment sector. In 2019, $18.32 billion was transferred by Bangladeshi migrant workers, according to BMET, and 73 percent of remittances were sent from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Bangladeshi missions in the Middle East should make more synchronized and coordinated efforts to ease the plight of the migrants who are struggling with the pandemic situation in GCC countries. The Foreign Ministry has assured workers that the Bangladeshi government was trying to help them stay in their current locations by sending letters to the manpower-receiving government including the GCC countries. The government requested them to employ the Bangladeshi migrants in some alternative sectors, especially in agriculture and fisheries. And in the case of job termination, they have requested the migrants’ receiving countries to pay the workers six months’ salary as compensation. Upon return the workers would be offered training and economic assistance to help them establish small and medium enterprises, according to the Foreign Ministry in Dhaka.

While unskilled labour and lack of professional training have  always been a matter of concern for Bangladesh, it would not be wise to trust the Middle Eastern governments to secure a transparent and labour-friendly living and work environment for the Bangladeshi migrants. This is  based on the observation on how these people have been subjected to severe violations of human and labour rights throughout the years. Through Labour Diplomacy, Bangladeshi Missions, the Foreign Ministry and the relevant ministries should play a proactive role to empower, train, and tactfully manage migrant workers. At the same time, they must condemn any acts of violations of the Labour Act and violence against the workers through diplomatic and legal channels. 

The Prime Minister of Bangladesh asked the manpower recruiting agencies to send Bangladeshi workers abroad after proper verification of their jobs and employers. Bangladesh has proposed at the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) to set up a fund for the expatriates to assist them, along with the measures taken to provide incentives and loans to the returnees. Bangladesh’s new identity as a developing country indicates its strength and capacity, as the country holds an improved image and branding in the global arena. As Bangladesh is playing an active role to pull investors into the country, simultaneously it is also necessary to incentivize the diplomatic channels to secure labour rights at any cost. Saudi Arabia, for example, is the largest destination for Bangladeshi workers. It reopened its market in 2015 after a break of seven years, but reduced its dependence on foreign workers. The new wage structure and associated rules require migrant workers to pay a monthly fee deductible from their wages in work permit renewal fees, which exceeds the range of the monthly wages of Bangladeshi workers. Many of the already overworked, unpaid and abused workers complain of forced return, deportation and non-payment of their monthly wages for several months.Rather than being paid for the additional hours of work, many were not even paid the salaries that were agreed upon in the contracts.

The rationale of labour diplomacy is based on the fact that these labourers go abroad to benefit both the host country, who need labour, and the workers themselves, who are seeking the jobs. It is time to revitalise the traditional idea of leveraging the missions and their leadership to transform the country’s economy. The government needs to review the execution of current labour diplomacy and devise fresh plans in view of the emerging challenges so that it will be able to realise its foreign policy goals in a more coherent manner.


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Thumbnail Courtesy: The Daily Star

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