 Tasneem Siddiqui University of Dhaka introduction

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Decent Work


International Labour Migration from Bangladesh
Tasneem Siddiqui

University of Dhaka

The annual growth rate of global migrant population has increased from 1.2 percent during the period 1965 to 1975 to 3 percent in early 2000 (Abella 2002). Among all kinds of migration, movement of workers is the most dominant. Close to 80% of the total migrant population are workers. Increased movement of labour is indicative of increased employment opportunity in the global market. In recent time migration has enabled a section of people to attain productive, self-actualizing and creative work but for many others it has not been successful in ensuring acceptable quality of job. Instead, migration has resulted in inhumane work conditions where basic labour rights of the workers are not respected.

Bangladesh is one of the major labour sending countries of the world. Each year a large number of people voluntarily migrate overseas for long-term and short-term employment. This paper attempts to assess the current state and future potential of short-term international migration in creating decent work opportunities for migrants of Bangladesh.


Over the last five years, some important empirical research works have been conducted on international migration. This paper relies on the findings of some of these works1. It surveyed several conference, seminar and workshop proceedings2. The paper is also based on interviews of officials of BMET and members of migrant workers’ associations and the outcome of stakeholder meetings with government, employers and trade unions.

Conceptual Frame Work

Decent Work

The overarching goal of ILO is to improve situation of human being in the world of work. In recent times, decent work has emerged as the core concept of ILO in achieving this goal (ILO, 1999, 2001). To ILO, decent work means productive work in which rights are protected and generates an adequate income, with adequate social protection. In other words, it refers to a situation that promotes opportunities for men and women to obtain decent and productive work in the condition of freedom, equality, security and human dignity. The concept of decent work stands on four pillars. These are access to employment, promotion of rights at work, social protection, and social dialogue.

Employment is generally seen as the means of sustaining life and of meeting basic human needs. But it is also an activity through which individuals affirm their own identity, receives satisfaction and makes fullest development of their potentials and skills, thereby making great contribution to common well-being. Therefore, employment is not to be seen only as access to any job, rather access to “full job of acceptable quality, productive in nature and freely chosen”. All those who work have rights at work. Every worker enjoys certain rights irrespective of his or her type of employment, whether in organised or not, in formal or informal economy, at home, in community or in the voluntary sector. Social protection refers to protection from vulnerabilities and contingencies that take people out of work. This includes old age, sickness, unemployment and loss of livelihood. Social dialogue is a process through which employer and employee resolve their differences and ensure social equity. It is means by which rights are defended, employment promoted and work secured.
Decent work concept is relevant for all countries. However, depending on the stage of development decent work standards may vary between countries at any given time. Decent work is also gaining currency as development and poverty reduction goals. In the millennium summit of 2000 the UN Secretary General identified Decent Work for young people as one of the eight priority ways of attacking poverty (UN 2000). Pope John Paul II supported a call for global coalition for decent work. On behalf of the non-aligned movement, President Tom Mbeki of South Africa affirmed that “decent standard of living, adequate nutrition, health care, education and decent work for all are common goals for both the South and the North”3. The UNDP Human Development Report of 2000 identified freedom for decent work without exploitation as one of the seven types of basic freedoms.

In this paper short-term international labour migration is defined as voluntary movement of people from one country to another for a certain period to achieve a better life or to earn a better livelihood. Employment is a major avenue through which migrants aspire to attain a better living. In the light of the four pillars, employment, right at work, social protection and social dialogue; the scope of voluntary international migration in creating decent work can be analysed.

The first indicator therefore may be access to full employment, to earn a reasonable income for maintenance of decent living and flourishing of creative energy of individuals. The second indicator would be that rights that are recognized for individuals at work and the extent to which he/she enjoys those rights in practice. The third indicator would constitute of social protections that are at place. Finally, the fourth indicator would be the available mechanisms operational for employers and employees to negotiate and protect rights at work.
This paper is divided into eight sections, including this introduction. Section 2 underscores the importance of labour migration to the economy of Bangladesh. Section 3 describes different ministries and agencies involved in managing migration. Section 4 starts the analysis of labour migration from decent work perspective. It attempts to understand access to employment created for the Bangladeshis through migration. Section 5 makes a comparison of the rights provided to the migrant workers through various international and national instruments and their enforcement at various stages of migration - ranging from recruitment to return. Section 6 analyses the level of social protection available to the migrants, and Section 7 highlights the participation of trade unions and other civil society organizations in acting as bridge between employers and employees through performing social dialogue. Section 8 draws conclusions on major policy challenges and finally offers some recommendations.


Labour migration plays a vital role in the economy of Bangladesh. Bangladesh has a very narrow export base. Readymade garments, frozen fish, jute, leather and tea are the five groups of items that account for four-fifths of its export earnings. Currently, garments manufacturing is treated as the highest foreign exchange earning sector of the country (US $ 4.583 billion in 2003). However, if the cost of import of raw material is adjusted, then the net earning from migrant workers’ remittances is higher than that of the garments sector. In 2003, net export earning from RMG should be between US$2.29-2.52 billion, whereas the earning from remittance is net US$3.063 billion. In fact, since the 1980s, contrary to the popular belief, remittances sent by the migrant workers played a much greater role in sustaining the economy of Bangladesh than the garments sector.4
During the period of 1977-1978 to 1997-1998, annual average of contribution of remittances was 26.5 percent (Siddiqui and Abrar, 2001). This has been used in financing the import of capital goods and raw materials for industrial development. In the year 1998-1999, 22 percent of the official import bill was financed by remittances (Afsar, 2000; Murshid, 2000). The steady flow of remittances has resolved the foreign exchange constraints, improved the balance of payments, and helped increase the supply of national savings (Quibria 1986). Remittances also constituted a very important source of the country’s development budget. In certain years in the 1990s remittances’ contribution rose to more than 50 percent of the country’s development budget. Government of Bangladesh treats Foreign aid (concessional loan and grants) as an important resource base of the country. However, remittances Bangladesh received last year was twice that of foreign aid.
The contribution of remittance to GDP has has also grown from a meagre 1 percent in 1977-1978 to 5.2 percent in 1982-83. During the 1990s the ratio hovered around 4 percent. However if one takes into account the unofficial flow of remittances, its contribution to GDP would certainly be much higher. Murshid (2000) finds that an increase in remittance by Taka 1 would result in an increase in national income by Tk 3.33.
Following the expiry of multi-fiber agreement (MFA), Bangladesh will face steep competition in export of RMG. The country will cease to enjoy any special quota. It is apprehended that Bangladesh’s RMG export will decline sharply. This will result in loss of job of many workers and shortfall in foreign exchange earning. Potential of retaining employment and export earning through export of frozen fish, jute, leather and tea seems rather bleak. It is in this context labour migration has become key sector for earning foreign exchange and creating opportunities for employment. Therefore, the importance of labour migration to the economy of Bangladesh can hardly be over emphasized.
Labour recruitment from Bangladesh involves various ministries and agencies of government, private recruiting agents, their local and international intermediaries, potential migrants and their families.

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