Professor Shahab Enam Khan, International Relations, Jahangirnagar University

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Labor Intensive

Professor Shahab Enam Khan talks about the factors affecting the future of migrant workers and policy preparedness

Can you please tell us about the project, you are currently working on?
Currently, I have been working with International agencies such as the UN, on the Bangladeshi migrants living in the Maldives. Also, I am looking into the current inflow and outflow of remittance. In my opinion, there are a few issues that we need to understand. One point is, what constitutes migration. Historically, we have considered migration as an economic issue. It has gradually changed over time. Other issues such as climate change, politics, and social security are now contributing to migration at a larger scale.

Social security has emerged as a very interesting issue. I have interacted with several migrants, who in spite of having a sound economic position in Bangladesh moved to other countries considering the sustainability of their work environment and general well-being. That means migration as the issue can no longer be viewed through the prism of just economics and politics.
Secondly, if you focus on the Maldives, a large number of migrants are there compared to the depth of the country. It is estimated that there are roughly 120,000-140,000 workers currently employed in the country with a population of 300,000-400,000. Many of them were treated as illegals for a long time. Now, there is a qualitative change that I consider as a great achievement. They are considered as undocumented migrants which opens up the opportunity for them to be documented.

On the other hand, if a migrant is considered as illegal, the path to legitimization is very complex. Bangladesh Embassy in the Maldives is currently working on this issue, which is encouraging. Elevating their status from illegal to undocumented itself was a major challenge and a great achievement.

We face a similar scenario in the Middle-East. Although Middle-East has a more structured immigration system compared to The Maldives, the political situation might make it impossible for migrants to stay there. We also need to focus on the economic evolution of middle eastern countries. Saudi Arabia is trying to shift its economy from oil to investment based, which will narrow the employment opportunities of international laborers. The country will require more skilled workers if indeed they can make a successful transition. Therefore, we need to prepare ourselves accordingly. The global trend is clear; more and more economies will require more skilled workers as opposed to semi-skilled and unskilled laborers we have in abundance.

The third problem is the rise in nationalism. For example, BREXIT will affect immigration or labor migration in Europe for years to come. Renewed nationalism all across Europe is going to make high skilled migration very difficult. For Bangladesh, besides economy, we need a strong public policy response mechanism. Our engagement should not be limited to the state only but also with the communities. Our Peace-keeping forces have done a phenomenal job in Africa, Eastern-Europe and Middle-East. We just need to modernize our diplomatic effort which should have preventive and proactive components. A conventional diplomatic approach is visibly falling short.

We also have to take into account the massive technological transformation our world is going through. There are three technology hotspots in the world- the USA, EU, and China. The massive change in technology has transformed the employment pattern throughout the world. To keep up, we require a solid plan and transition strategies. Within the next decade, the entire structure of employment will change due to Artificial Intelligence (Ai)I, Big Data, and more intuitive technology. We should not only expect an effort from the government but also the private sector. Private sector should employ more resources into R&D. Our universities should focus more on STEM research; also the specialized sectors or TVET education in the areas of leather and textile require a massive overhaul. Henceforth, we need to put more faith in innovative startups. However, we need to face the fact that to bring young innovators into an entrepreneurial framework might be difficult due to socio-economic constraints. Bridging these gaps is a critical factor. We have to diversify our export portfolio. More than 80% of our export is RMG, any kind of volatility in that sector puts pressure on our entire economy.

Besides expanding our export and trade portfolio, we should ensure protection of environment, biodiversity, and ecosystems. The focus should be on green development. Our topography is small with an incredibly high density of population. Therefore, environmental sustainability will determine the kind of growth we can achieve. There are few sectors we should focus on. Besides IT and Textile, we should look into light engineering, further enhancing of pharmaceutical sector, maritime engineering and so on. Light engineering is important for us because there is local demand as well as great export potential. I am not a big advocate of the ship breaking industry due to the environmental damage it causes. Rather, we should look to establish an environment-friendly ship-building industry. Our pharmaceutical industry has done phenomenally. In the future, when we will graduate from the LDC list, we will lose some crucial subsidies. Investments should be made to ensure that we do not lose our position in the global market and also that we can keep making drugs for our people.

We should encourage factories to make cars and vehicles. Bangladesh is heavily reliant on reconditioned vehicles. We should produce our own cars, to save the millions of dollars we send out to import cars.

Do you believe the policymakers are at peace with the situation? How can they be made more aware of this scenario?
I believe policymakers are aware of the facts. The problem remains in institutional and human resources capacity, in carrying out projects like this. I think the demand should come from the private sector first. There has to be more constructive dialogues between the private sector and the government. The Banking sector remains as the weakest link in keeping the future pace of economic growth. It is high time that we should focus on creating high end market within the country and to look for diversified export. Secondly, political leadership needs to understand the changes that are taking place. A single policy cannot fix everything. We require multiple policies from different agencies. Coordinating different agencies with the emphasis on sustainability is another prerequisite where I believe the private sector should play a leading role.

What is the role of our embassies in the countries where we send our workers? Are they sending back enough information to the government?
Our foreign ministry’s focus is currently on economic diplomacy, and in special cases security diplomacy with Myanmar. As I mentioned, economic diplomacy is not the entire solution. The problem remains on two grounds. One, embassies are often understaffed which essentially creates a gap in the responses. Secondly, the changing techno-economic and security dynamics are not always understood by the embassy staff themselves. We have to keep in mind that embassies are not solely responsible for the tasks. Other ministries are also involved. There is a need for a strong push from the Expatriates Welfare Ministry to create awareness regarding skills, and they should expand their portfolio to provide more training to our workers and create awareness regarding the migration process. The process itself is riddled with problems; there is rampant corruption. The government’s efforts are often not executed because of a lack of awareness and capacity. For example, most labors would go to the Maldives without knowing the nature of their employment. They are usually lured by agents who convince them by offering cheaper costs. The practice was also rampant in the case of Malaysia. That is why precautions and awareness in the migration process and initiatives are very important. Every step in the process and the costs should be spelled out very clearly. Migrants who seek jobs in unskilled positions are usually from rural areas, awareness among them is very low. We need to understand that these migrant workers are one of the key agents to keep our economy stable.

Do you think NRBs can play any role in this regard?
NRBs have a significant role to play. First of all, their role is to create awareness, which is very important. Awareness about the kind of migration taking place which will spread through more integration back home. NRBs can help once a migrant is in the host country. They can be the platform for the migrant’s welfare. Also, NRBs can provide training required for employment and social life.

Besides the issues we have discussed, are there any other challenges to be addressed?
There is a tendency to securitize migrant workers; this practice should not be encouraged. Rather the people responsible for their travel and migration should be brought under strict monitoring. Migrants are more vulnerable to economic and social exploitation. Most migrants are vulnerable to the said exploitation rather than being suspected of radicalization. Historically, we have blamed radicalization on nationalism and foreign funding, but it has been proven that it stems from socio-economic grievances and nationalism. In India, people are lynched over the accusation of being anti-national. Even in the western world migrants are being subjected to racism which stems from radical nationalism. For the migrants to become a victim of hate-speech is also a dangerous factor. The practice of hate speech is growing like an epidemic all over the world. It is not only about religion and race but also about gender and preference. Rising intolerance all over the world will also affect migration in years to come. Climate migration should also be factored in. Climate change is not only causing internal migration; people are moving to other countries for economic and physical safety. Therefore, it’s a complex situation; neither the government nor the private sector can overlook this. Because the suitability of business and economic environment will be determined by all these factors.

From that experience, how do you think we can reduce corruption in the migration process?
It can only be achieved through strict implementation of laws. And that should be backed by skills training. Until there are transparent laws and strict implementation of them, it is not going to stop. Because the non-urban working class will always be vulnerable to exploitation. Therefore, until there is an awareness of skills backed by law, corruption is going to persist.

We have seen that many migrant workers are unable to pay back the loans they take while going abroad.
The income is undoubtedly higher abroad than in Bangladesh in most cases. However, in many cases, they do not get the amount that is promised. It varies in different countries. The problem is, they incur a lot of debt at the very start. Also, the migrants are not allowed to change their work even if they are exploited. Here, there is an element of human rights violation. In the long run, this affects both the family and society. For Bangladesh, remittance is very important without any doubt. But we can always make it safer for our workers. That comes from awareness. There might be laws, but one must know how to make use of it. The same goes for skills. For example, there is a huge demand for nurses and chefs. On the other hand, the need for drivers is set to decline due to autonomous vehicles. It means we must adjust our skillset according to the current demand. We have to study the patterns and make plans for the next few decades. However, we have to keep in mind the rise of Ultra-nationalist and White supremacist groups across the world, as they are going to disrupt innovation and migration in the near future.

Professor Shahab Enam Khan teaches at Jahangirnagar University and is the Research Director at the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Hainan Institute of World Watch, China.

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