DR SYED ABDUL HAMID, Professor & Former Director, Institute of Health Economics, University of Dhaka

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Bracing for the Future

In a conversation, Dr Syed Abdul Hamid, Professor and Former Director, Institute of Health Economics, University of Dhaka divulges on the possibility of finding a new destination for our migrant workers and the importance of reforming the education system to enhance the skill set of the workforce.

There have been calls to introduce a universal basic income for the poor who have been the hardest hit due to the pandemic. Should our returning migrant workers be included in the process?
There are several points that we need to address before answering this question. There is a need to categorise the current economic conditions of the returning migrant workers because their socio-economic conditions vary widely across the country. The obvious answer is that they should be included in the universal basic income program but only under one condition, they should belong to the eligible segment of the population. Only a certain segment of the population who are at great risk of hunger and malnutrition because of the pandemic are being considered for the program. Therefore, the returnee migrants who fall in this criteria should be considered for the program.

Secondly, we need to think about the impacts of including migrant workers in the program in a broader perspective. Inward remittance is one of the main pillars of our economy. Over the years, hard-earned money sent by the migrant workers played a major role in making Bangladesh one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. It is our responsibility to ensure the migrant workers get the kind of respect that they deserve. There is a possibility that including them in the universal basic income programme may expose them to social contempt, we have to avoid initiatives that lead to these issues.

Also, migrant workers do not fit in the same category as the destitute population. It often takes up to Tk 10 lakh to ensure employment abroad so they belong to a higher economic category. In my opinion, if the government decides on direct cash incentive to returnee migrant workers, a separate program should be designed to address the problems that our returnee workers are facing and assistance should be provided under the designed program.

The falling oil price is having serious consequences on our expatriate income as an overwhelming number of Bangladeshi workers are employed in this region. As the global oil market is not expected to recover anytime soon, how crucial is it for us to look for alternative destinations for our migrant workers?
Due to the falling oil price, economies in the middle east are expected to go into a deep recession. It will have serious consequences on our expatriate income as an overwhelming number of Bangladeshi workers are employed in this region. Bangladeshi workers who are mostly employed in construction and logistics may lose employment and stop sending money. The situation may prompt many of them to return home in search of employment, exacerbating the problem by increasing the demand for workers in an already strapped local economy. So it is certain that we will have to look for a new destination for our migrant workforce. Now, the question is, where is our new destination?

To answer this question we have to look at the skill level of our migrant workers. We mostly export unskilled labour and the market for that kind of labour is gradually shrinking. Our migrant workers are mostly employed in construction, agriculture, driving and cleaning. The slowing down of the global economy would mean the chances of employment in the construction sector will be significantly reduced. Concurrently, innovation and automation have been reducing the demand for human workers in other sectors. Therefore, at the current skill level and competence, the possibility of finding a new destination for our labour force is negligible.

Secondly, because of the massive outbreak of COVID19 in Bangladesh, many countries will be reluctant to import labour from our country until improving the situation significantly. The longer it will take to flatten the curve, the more isolated we will be to the rest of the world.

As a contingency option for the short term, the government must explore new markets for the unskilled workforce. The embassies of Bangladesh in foreign countries should be in charge of this exploration. They should identify the kind of demand for labour that exists in the countries where they are residing. And inform the government regarding the potential market for our migrant workforce.

However, we cannot go long focusing solely on our unskilled labour. As an impact of the recession, construction projects across the world will be significantly reduced. Thus, the era of unskilled labour will be coming to an end.

So, we need to make a long term plan to build skilled labour. But this is not possible with our current educational system. We need to put more focus on the vocational system. The existing vocational institutes aren’t as per standard to provide effective training to the students. Thus, these institutes need to be reformed. The certificates that will be provided from these institutes should be based on the skills of the students.

Concurrently, the English skills of the students need to be enhanced so that they can communicate with their peers and employers.

Skilled labour will not be created overnight. We need a proper plan for it. The plan has two parts. First one is, the current vocational institutes need to focus on training and vocational learning. The emphasis on written exams should be reduced rather, it should be focused on their practical skills. And secondly, their English language skill should be improved.

In the long run, the entire educational system has to be changed. There is no need for everyone to opt for general education. Students would be required to be assessed and assigned between general and vocational education based on their merit and interest. Consequently, in the long run, we will be able to produce a skilled workforce who are capable of executing their abilities efficiently.

The national budget 2020-21 allocated Tk 6.41 billion for the Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment (EWOE) ministry for FY21. Do you think this amount is adequate? What kind of assistance our expatriates need from the government right now?
Firstly, we should discuss the contingency measures that will help to rehabilitate the returnee migrant workers. Our workers have acquired a certain level of skill-set through their experience. The skill sets achieved can be used as a benchmark for competency to ensure their employment in the country. A list needs to be prepared which will include the names of immigrants, those who have returned, and the kind of skills that they have developed. This can be easily prepared by the airport authorities and the ministry of expatriates’ welfare and overseas employment.

Based on the information of the skills, i.e, who were involved in cleaning, driving or construction, the expatriates need to be segmented. If there is an opportunity to provide them with work based on their earned skills in Bangladesh, it should be provided. And, if it is not possible to provide them with work, then they should be given a 5/10 year termed loan on no or low interest. So that they will be able to earn their livelihood.

The process of providing the loan should be transparent so that the expatriates do not have to face any sort of harassment or are forced to bribe political entities of their localities. Thus, it needs to be ensured that they get the loan without incurring any cost.

The expatriates may not be skilled enough to utilise the loan properly. To combat that, they should be linked with qualified local NGOs who will help them to ensure proper utilisation of the money. This should be a voluntary mechanism, those who feel that they need assistance only should be linked with the NGOs. Also, they can be given training by institutions so that they can learn how to utilize the money. The proper utilization of the loan should be monitored and supervised by concerned authorities like banks, and/or Upazila based relevant government offices (e.g., agriculture, fishery, etc.)

Now the question comes whether 6.41 billion (641 crore) Taka is adequate for the expatriates. It depends on the number of immigrants who have returned already and who will return in the next five or six months.

So far around 6 lakhs, people have returned. If you divide the amount by 6 lakhs, then each person receives around taka ten thousand on average. All of the returnees may not require the amount considering their well off financial condition. But if even 50% of the expatriates receive the money, it will be not enough to sustain more than two months in the current situation.

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