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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

STRUGGLES OF MIGRANT WORKERS

Lack of language skills hinders fair wages in Gulf jobs

This is the first of an 11-part series on the challenges faced by migrant workers

Update : 17 Mar 2024, 07:25 PM

Rabiul Awal, from Bholahat in Chapainawabganj, cannot read or write Arabic, nor can he speak or understand it. He moved to Saudi Arabia, enticed by brokers, and initially faced difficulties finding a job. Even when he secured a job later on, he earned only 800 Saudi riyals per month, equivalent to Tk23,200. 

Another worker doing the same job received 1,700 riyals (Tk49,300) due to his language proficiency. 

Rabiul gradually learned Arabic through his own efforts over the course of about five months. Now, he works in a pharmacy and earns 1,800 riyals (Tk52,200).

Thousands of workers like Rabiul migrate abroad every year without language education, mostly ending up with low-paying jobs. Many workers return home disappointed due to lower-than-expected salaries. 

However, those receiving government training and language skills do not face such issues and receive the expected pay.

According to the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET), in 2023, a total of 1,305,453 people migrated abroad for jobs, with 816,675 going to Arab-speaking Middle Eastern countries, accounting for 62.56% of the total migrant workers. 

The highest number, 497,674, went to Saudi Arabia, followed by 98,422 to the United Arab Emirates, 36,548 to Kuwait, 127,883 to Oman, and 56,148 to Qatar.

Arabic is the primary language in all these countries, yet there is no language training available for migrant workers. Consequently, they face difficulties receiving fair wages and encounter workplace challenges due to the language barrier. 

Although some limited opportunities for language training exist, particularly in urban areas, there are none at the local level, discouraging workers from learning the language before going abroad.

Despite language institutions teaching Japanese, Korean, English, and Chinese languages in the country, there is a lack of Arabic language teaching institutions. 

Short-term Arabic language courses are available at the Institute of Modern Languages at Dhaka University. However, admission criteria requiring an HSC certificate are restrictive and impractical for many rural workers.

According to the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment, there are 43 Japanese, 32 Korean, 16 English, and four Chinese language training centres in the country, but none for Arabic, even though most expatriates went to Saudi Arabia last year.

In the fiscal year 2022-23, 95 training centres across the country under BMET taught the languages of four countries. 

A total of 2,423 trainees learned Japanese, Korean, English, and Chinese languages, whereas about 1.3 million workers migrated abroad at that time.

BMET has made language tests mandatory for labour migration to South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong, ensuring Bangladeshi workers face no complications in these regions. Additionally, women domestic workers bound for the Middle East, the largest destination for Bangladeshi manpower exports, are required to undergo a one-month Arabic language training. However, officials acknowledge that this training is insufficient for learning Arabic adequately.

Md Salah Uddin, director (training operation), BMET, mentioned that Arabic language courses were previously available but were discontinued due to decreased interest among students. However, the ministry recently instructed the restarting of Arabic language courses nationwide in response to workers' needs.

Dr Sowmit Chanda Joydip, migration expert and assistant professor at Brac University, emphasized the importance of language skills in the labour market. 

“Workers from the Philippines, India, and Sri Lanka earn more than Bangladeshi workers simply because they possess better language proficiency,” he told Dhaka Tribune.

Professor Tanzim Uddin Khan from the Department of International Relations at Dhaka University highlighted the trend of less educated and unskilled individuals migrating abroad from Bangladesh due to a lack of government-managed language education opportunities. 

He stressed the need for the government to take major initiatives to ensure workers acquire language skills before going abroad.

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