Tuesday, May 21, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

What is the actual number of Bangladeshi migrant workers?

  • Multiple counting, lack of return data behind the discrepancies
  • BBS says number of expatriates is 5 million
Update : 15 Dec 2023, 10:37 AM

There is considerable confusion and discrepancy regarding the actual number of Bangladeshi workers currently employed overseas. 

Various sources provide conflicting figures, raising questions about the accuracy of data collection and hindering effective policy and planning.

In July, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told parliament that more than 14.9 million workers are currently working in 176 countries worldwide. 

On the other hand, Expatriate Welfare and Foreign Employment Minister Imran Ahmad in September said in parliament that the number of Bangladeshis going abroad for work is 15.5 million. 

For its part, the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) recently noted in the National Report of Population and Housing Census-2022 that the number of expatriates staying abroad is 5 million. 

Such discrepancies have raised questions about the accuracy of migrant worker statistics.

The Bureau of Manpower, Employment, and Training (BMET) has reported that from 1976 to October 2023, 15.86 million people obtained BMET licenses for overseas work.

However, the absence of year-wise returning worker information makes it challenging to determine the actual number of resident workers abroad.

A migrant’s overseas work contract lasts for two to three years. After the contract expires, he has to return to the country and apply again. Again, the same person may travel to three to four countries during his career, and he has also been counted more than once. 

The lack of comprehensive data further complicates the situation.

The Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) noted in its 2019 Labor Market Report that between 1976 and 2019, a total of 1.28 million workers migrated abroad for employment. Yet this figure does not reflect the current number of Bangladeshi workers abroad, as many are short-term contract workers who return home after their contracts end.

Moreover, RMMRU said that although the total number of countries of immigration is 173, 95% of migrants moved to only 14 to 15 countries. Few workers go to other countries.

Ministry uncertain

The Ministry of Expatriate Welfare and Foreign Employment has the number of workers who returned during the pandemic, which is about 500,000. Based on that information, a project has been launched to support workers who have lost their jobs due to Covid-19.

The ministry’s Senior Secretary Dr Ahmed Munirus Saleheen said: “We do not have information about how many workers are currently abroad.”

The recent BMET data indicate that 1.21 million workers went abroad with BMET clearance until November this year, with Saudi Arabia and Malaysia being the top destinations. 

However, the Omani government's decision to halt visa issuance to Bangladeshis adds another layer of complexity.

According to the government of Oman, the number of Bangladeshis in that country is about 700,000. However, the BMET says that only 1.8 million workers went to Oman from 1976 till last November.

The confusion is further compounded by the fact that some workers return due to job loss, deportation, or voluntary return, making accurate statistics elusive. 

The BBS reported that 5.05 million people were staying abroad during the six months preceding the census period. Still, this data excludes those who returned to the country permanently in the previous two years.

What authorities say

Statistics and Informatics Division Deputy Secretary Dr Dipankar Roy clarified that the census considered only those who had been abroad for more than six months, excluding those on leave or settled abroad with their families. 

About information from BMET or other organizations, Dipankar Roy said: “Their statistics do not include the return of expatriates. So, it is not comparable with their statistics because they calculate by adding the total number of passengers. It is called a period of time but we have done a point of time. That is, only those who were abroad during the census were calculated.”

In light of these discrepancies, Planning Minister MA Mannan acknowledged the need to address doubts about expatriate numbers and pledged to clarify the matter with the BBS. 

On November 28, at an occasion related to the publication of the final report of the census and household census project, he said: "Some questions have been raised here; I will follow up on the matter."

Brac Associate Director Shariful Hasan criticized BMET's information, citing double-counting of workers who move between multiple countries. 

“The same worker who may have gone first to Oman and then to Saudi Arabia is counted twice. There are many expatriates who have gone to three or four countries for work due to which our census data do not match with BMET data,” he said.

Without knowing the correct information, it is not possible to say how many Bangladeshi workers are abroad, he added.

Shariful Hasan also said that gathering information is not an issue in the modern era. “After e-passports and machine readable passports, this task will not be very difficult. But we have to figure out some strategy.”

He emphasized the importance of accurate data for remittance calculations and other financial assessments.

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