Page last updated at 23:07 GMT, Thursday, 4 June 2009 00:07 UK

Migrants return to Bangladesh

By Farhana Haider
BBC World Service Analysis Programme

Bangladeshi workers work in a textile factory on the outskirts of Dhaka
People and garments are Bangladesh's two biggest exports

Thousands of Bangladeshi migrant workers are returning home as a result of the global recession.

There are more than six million Bangladeshis working abroad and the remittances that they send home are the country's largest source of foreign exchange.

Their income is over $9bn, which is 10% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP).

The vast majority of Bangladeshi migrant workers reside in the Gulf States, Malaysia, Singapore, the US and the UK.

Slave labour

Multi-million dollar construction projects in the Gulf countries have been a major driver of economic growth in Bangladesh.

However, the building boom has slowed and workers are being laid off or, in many cases not being paid.

Dubai airport at night
Thousands of Bangladeshis have worked in major building projects in Dubai

Nur Mohammmad is a migrant worker who spoke to BBC World Service's Analysis programme about his experience working abroad.

"I went to Dubai and was never paid my full salary, I was a construction worker.

"I was there for six months and during that time I was only paid for food,” he said.

After a period three months he was laid off along with 30 other men, and then deported.

"Before I left Bangladesh, I paid a broker $3000 to find work and get a work permit," said Mr Mohammad.

"I am supporting my four brothers and a sister, as well as a wife and child and both my parents.

"I mortgaged my land to pay the broker and until I pay him, I cannot get my land back," he added.

Taking advantage

Nur is typical of many of the unskilled rural workers who make their way abroad.

Asif Munir is the National Programme Officer for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Dhaka.

He feels that most migrant workers are completely at the mercy of middlemen and brokers.

"Some of them do not always know how to read and write and they often don't know the language.

There shouldn't be any opportunity for an employer or recruiter to change the terms of the contract once the worker arrives
Kathleen Newland, Migration Policy Institute

"They quite often don't know what kind of job they are going to do until they go abroad and what types of terms and conditions they are going to have. Theses workers are already in a vicious cycle, when they are paying the brokers in the first place, they are in debt before they leave the country.

"When they go abroad they work, they save some money and try to repay that loan through their families.

“"f they are not able to complete their contract, they are not able to pay out that debt and there is a concern that they will be in even more debt when they come back.

"When they get back home, there is no guarantee that they will get a job either,” he added.

Kathleen Newland, from the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, says the exploitation of migrant workers is inexcusable.

"There shouldn't be any opportunity for an employer or recruiter to change the terms of the contract once the worker arrives.

"A labourer who goes from any country to the Middle East, should go with a secure contract whose terms are fair and transparent," she said.

Import, export

A Bangladeshi flood victim wades through flooded streets with her children
Bangladesh is a very poor country, always prone to natural disasters

Every year about two million people come onto the job market in Bangladesh, of which half go to work abroad.

With the global downturn in full swing, the World Bank estimates that the country will now have to find jobs for many more people at home.

The problem for Bangladesh is that it is very densely populated, and there are not enough jobs and not enough land.

“The immediate prospects don't look good, but there are some emerging industries,” said Zahid Hussain, World Bank Senior Economist in Dhaka.

"Pharmaceuticals for example is a dynamic sector and the shipbuilding industry.

"These are all now being affected by the global recession, so I would expect that if these industries don't absorb this additional labour force, then most of them would have to find employment in the informal sector.

"In a poor economy like Bangladesh, you can't afford to remain unemployed, so what you do is move from high productivity occupations to low productivity occupations," he said.

Kathleen Newland feels the Bangladesh government needs to make sure those migrant workers have more skills to make them more employable.

Geographical diversification is very important to cushion the blow of falling so heavily
Kathleen Newland, Migration Policy Institute

"In planning ahead, the government should be trying to diversify their immigrant labour force, so that they are not all working in one highly cyclical sector. Bangladesh has been trying to do that, they have been trying to get more people into the healthcare market and training nurses to work abroad.

"That kind of diversification by sector as well as geographical diversification is very important to cushion the blow of falling so heavily," she added.


Sending Bangladeshi labour to new countries is something the government is looking into explained Zahid Hussain from the World Bank.

"They have signed a memorandum of understanding with Libya to export about one million workers in 2009.

"They are looking for markets other than Eastern Europe.

"We export low-skilled workers, so the assumption is that the demand for those kind of skills, like security guards or nurses and construction workers might continue if the economies there are managing decent growth, despite the recession,” he added.

However as a country which depends so heavily on remittances, Bangladesh needs to prepare itself for the return of tens of thousands of those workers, with all the loss of income and social upheaval that this will cause.

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