In an encouraging sign of normalcy returning to the overseas labour market for Bangladeshis, the number of workers receiving immigration clearance in a single month from the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training crossed 100,000 (1 lakh) last November.

Only once before, in March 2017, had so many workers (above 1 lakh) received BMET clearance in a single month. But the November figure gains far more significance coming on the back of the post-Covid lockdown slump witnessed in the international labour market.

Shahidul Alam, Director General of BMET, told UNB that 102,863 (1 lakh 2 thousand 63) workers were provided clearance to go abroad in November 2021, by far the highest in a single month since the start of the pandemic.

According to BMET numbers, 35,732 workers were cleared to go abroad in January 2021, followed by 49,510 in February and 61,653 in March. However, during the second wave of the pandemic in the country, the number of migrating workers decreased due to the reimposition of lockdown in April, dropping to 34,145 and then even further to 14,200 in May.

Although the number rose to 45,567 in June, it slumped again to just 12,380 in July and 19,604 in August.

Shahidul Alam said that the situation started improving again after the lockdown was gradually lifted in September. Some 42,000 workers were cleared to go abroad in September, rising to 65,233 in October, and culminating in the 'record' figure in November.

In both October and November, the figure rose by over 50% compared to the previous month, driving a belief that Bangladesh may have turned the corner when it comes to the overseas labour market.

"Our labour market has recovered because aviation with different countries has become normal," Shahidul Alam said.

Out of the 485,895 workers who migrated in the first 11 months of 2021, 370,014 - 76 percent of the total -went to Saudi Arabia. Job opportunities have increased for Bangladeshis in Saudi Arabia after the pandemic, the DMET DG added.

Besides, 40,086 workers migrated to Oman, 21,339 to Singapore, 14,274 to UAE, 11,845 to Jordan, 9,728 to Qatar and 936 to Kuwait during the same period.

Shariful Hasan, head of the migration program at development organisation BRAC, told UNB that the employment of about 500,000 workers abroad in a year blighted by the pandemic is certainly a positive development.

He noted that according to the International Organization for Migration, Bangladesh is one of the top 10 countries in the world in terms of foreign employment and remittance. Over 1 crore Bangladeshi migrant workers are sending remittances.

As a result of their contribution, on May 3, 2021, the foreign exchange reserves reached the milestone of $45 billion for the first time. Expatriates sent over $24 billion in remittances during the 2020-21 fiscal, itself a record.

"To put it simply, expatriates are sending up to 8-10 times more in remittances than the amount of foreign loans or grants that are now coming in to Bangladesh, or even the amount of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the country," Shariful added.

Looking ahead

The first outbreak of Covid-19 in March 2020 hit the immigration sector hard. Shariful Hasan said, "We stumbled repeatedly; but we did not lag behind."

Despite various crises, the government, the Ministry of Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment, BMET, the Welfare Board, the Expatriate Welfare Bank and other international and non-governmental organizations have tried to work together, this Brac official added.

Arrangements for timely ticketing, registration and vaccination of expatriates, Tk 25,000 for quarantine, installation of RT-PCR devices at airports, government co-operation, and various initiatives have been arranged for the expatriates in response to demands. All these combined effort helped to achieve this record, said Brac's Shariful Hasan.

He said the demand for workers in various sectors, including agriculture, is increasing all over the world following the pandemic.

Loong ahead, Shariful said facilitators have to gain a sense of where the opportunities will arise for future migrants, in terms of destinations as well as sectors. Accordingly, workers will have to be prepared with the requisite skills.

There is already a consensus on greater demand for workers suited to new occupations as part of the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Initiatives must be taken to create skilled manpower in those occupations. Exploring new labour markets is also important, said Shariful.

Besides, at the district level, various initiatives are being taken to increase the quality of service in the technical training centres in order to enhance the skills of expatriate workers. "That is why everything is being rearranged," said BMET Director General Shahidul.

Moreover, for the safety and security of Bangladeshi workers in Saudi Arabia, a meeting will be held every month with the Saudi Embassy in Bangladesh.

Addressing the expatriate workers, Shahidul Alam said that before going abroad, one has to preserve the proof of transacting with anyone. If necessary, papers and photographs of that person should be kept. "In case of any kind of harassment, action can be taken according to the evidence."

Fares to ME come down

Meanwhile, despite all these initiatives, Bangladesh Expatriate Rights Council demanded that the air fare be reduced for expatriates flying to work in the Middle-Eastern countries. The demand was voiced at the fag end of 2021.

Amid heightened pressure from several quarters, Biman Bangladesh Airlines in the New Year announced reduced airfares to the Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, which will be effective from January 16.

Labour migration from Bangladesh

Bangladesh entered the global labour market through the overseas employment of just 1,500 people in the years following independence. In 1989, for the first time, 1 lakh workers were employed abroad in a year. After that it became 2-3 lakhs and reached 8 lakhs in 2007. Then, 875,000 (8 lakh 75 thousand) workers got employment overseas from Bangladesh in 2008. Later, 5-6 lakh went abroad on average for several years, according to BMET.

Some 734,000 in 2018 and another 700,000 were employed overseas in 2019.

Shahidul Alam said the country's manpower has recovered after overcoming the damages of the Covid pandemic in the oversea employment sector. New labour markets are also being introduced for which he called on the media workers to come forward to protect the migrant workers from falling prey to fraud.

During the pandemic, overseas employment came to a halt in 2020. In fact it decreased drastically, as about 5 lakh Bangladeshis were forced to return home. However, the situation improved once in October 2020. And this ability to rebound after a slump has been evident once again since September 2021.

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