Annually, about 500,000 people migrate from Bangladesh to work abroad. Migrant workers collectively contribute about 7 - 8% to the country’s total GDP in the form of remittances, thus fuelling the nation’s growth and progress.
Despite their hard work and commitment, most migrants are unskilled and end up in the most physically demanding and dangerous jobs that no one else will take in the Middle East.
Oman and Saudi Arabia are the largest recipients of Bangladeshi workers, followed closely by Qatar (BMET 2016).
Most female migrant workers are recruited for domestic maid service and most males are recruited into the construction sector.
When thrown into competition with their counterparts from the Philippines, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, migrants from Bangladesh fare poorly. Estimates by recruitment agencies suggest that for every $100 earned by a Bangladeshi, $200 is earned by an Indian worker and $300 by a Sri Lankan.
The theory goes that if our migrants had internationally recognized vocational skills, they would be able to secure higher paying jobs and better workplace protection which would lead to better lives for them and their families as well as greater remittances for the nation.
What would it take to develop the skills of our migrant labour work force?
To understand how certified skills development can assist Bangladeshi migrants in achieving better jobs, the International Organization of Migration (IOM) conducted a study titled “Maximizing the potential of labour migration through skills development and certification” (2016).The findings of the study are summarized in this article.
On average, only 31% of those who leave the country obtain employment in skilled occupations. Most migrants lack training and very few have qualifications recognized by host nations.
Many migrants upgrade their skills on the job while working in foreign industry but they too fall into a trap, as there are few opportunities for them to gain certification for these higher levels of competency. Without certification of skills, when they change jobs, they are slotted into positions with less responsibility and lower salaries. Migrant workers from other countries, such as the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and India, are able to negotiate higher wages due to their skills being recognized.
In the past, the curriculum in Bangladesh was outdated and did not match the needs of employers. Courses were long; quality was weak and the emphasis was on theory, not practical competency. There was no qualifications framework by which to calibrate levels of competency gained in relation to competency standards in other countries.
Reform is underway. Bangladesh’s National Skills Development Policy 2011 addresses many of the problems faced by migrant workers. The policy encourages training institutes to be labour market responsive, to assure quality training, to provide standardized assessments and certification and to adopt a National Technical and Vocational Qualifications Framework with clear levels which translate into recognized qualifications in foreign countries.
These are steps in the right direction. In order to fortify the migration process for semi-skilled workers, the study recommends the following actions.
Standardize recruitment practices and employer engagement
International recruitment agencies act as intermediaries between sending countries and receiving countries. Standardizing their practices around an ethical framework would reduce the vulnerability of migrants.
A digital platform for linking stakeholders should be developed bringing more transparency to the recruitment process. This can make it clearer which industries abroad are growing in terms of their demand for labour, and what skill sets are garnering more popular demand.
The Department of Technical Education should link vocational training institutes to this platform in order to ensure that the local skills produced are in sync with the international demand for skilled labour.
Promote bilateral, regional and interregional exchanges and action
Foreign labour markets need migrants with the right skills. Currently, the opportunities for partnership and cooperation are largely under-developed.
Stakeholders such as industry, government, and manpower agencies can do more to collaborate on issues to do with market needs, skills development, recruitment, testing, accreditation, and certification.
Bilateral and regional government-to-government collaboration can be formalized and taken forward. Some limited models exist (for example, between Saudi Arabia and India on the recruitment and employment of domestic workers) and these should be extended.
Strengthen the knowledge base and track developments
The lack of information on required qualifications, skills, and wages at the destination country limits training institutions and migrant workers in Bangladesh from making informed decisions. This results in lost opportunities and training investment mistakes.
Trend analysis and robust partnerships with private sector are essential for understanding the emerging labour demand, in the short, medium and long terms. The National Skills Development Council can work with Industry Skill Councils to develop local market analysis and with embassies and labour attaches to understand international labour market requirements.
Expand awareness of migration processes and disseminate needed information
Prospective migrants need to be made aware of how skills development, assessment, and certification can enhance their opportunities for better paid employment abroad.
Potential migrants need access to skills development opportunities and suitable migration information. Awareness campaigns are needed to help them understand why and where to develop skills and how to migrate safely.
Improving the quality of our skills training, increasing access to such training and building strong partnerships with foreign employers can help us go a long way to increasing the potential of our young and spirited labour force.
Sajjad Ahmed is a National Programme Officer at the International Organization of Migration (IOM).
Shazia Omar is a writer, an activist and a yogini. www.shaziaomar.com