To foreign shores
What is the true cost of migration?
Migrant workers send remittances of $12-15 billion to Bangladesh annually, reducing poverty and improving the welfare of labour-sending households and communities. Acknowledging the importance of labour migration, the government of Bangladesh has undertaken legislative and administrative measures to better serve migrants and to help them harness the gains from their work.
As such, The Ministry of Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment fixed the migration cost to discourage recruiting agencies from charging excessive migration fees from aspiring migrants. Despite this, the cost of migration is higher for Bangladeshi workers than for Indians and Sri Lankans. The cost ceiling is not enforced; brokers and recruiting agencies are not monitored.
To understand the financial and social costs of international migration, the International Organization of Migration (IOM) commissioned a study to assess recruitment costs, remittance costs, and social costs of international migration and the poverty implications.
The study, “Thematic Research on Migration and Development” was conducted by the Human Development Research Centre, 2017. The findings are summarized in this article.
The average cost of migrating currently stands at $2,600 to $3,900; which amounts to three years’ worth of income for the average Bangladeshi. This cost varies depending on the destination country, socio-economic status of migrant worker, and the recruitment process.
A World Bank report says Bangladeshis had to work for nine months in Kuwait simply to recoup the money they had spent to finance migration. In contrast, Indian workers had to work for two and a half months and Sri Lankans only a month to recover the migration cost.
Formal costs of recruitment include: Application fees, visa fees, work permit fees, medical check-up, overseas marketing and liaison office cost, training cost, air fare, advanced income tax, trade testing (for skilled workers) training and language, wage earners’ welfare fees, collateral fees, data registration fees, recruiting agency service charge, insurance, emigration tax, and value added tax.
The problem lies in the massive costs hidden in the informal migration process. About 78% of the total recruitment and migration costs are pocketed by middlemen, illegal intermediaries, or sub-agents in the countries of origin and destination.
The presence of the middlemen is non-transparent, thus, is creating and making use of asymmetric information to distort the market. Migrants out of Bangladesh are still by and large illiterate and unskilled, their bargaining position vis-à-vis the manpower agencies is diminished.
There are more people looking for employment abroad than there are available regular jobs, and hence people are willing to choose risky channels in the hopes of higher salaries.
These channels often lead the migrants to become victims of trafficking, smuggling, exploitation, abuse, and much worse. These added risks of the irregular channels call for appropriate measures to reduce the costs of migration, especially the recruitment costs.
“The problem lies in the massive costs hidden in the informal migration process. About 78% of the total recruitment and migration costs are pocketed by middlemen”
Left-behind female spouses often have to take up roles and responsibilities of the male figure in the house, in addition to the traditional “female” ones. They become over-burdened and begin to fail in both household chores and income-generating activities.
This causes additional burden and stress, and affects their psychosocial well-being, often leading to feuds and family breakdowns. Social stigma imposed by locals seems to be the top-most social cost borne by the left-behind spouses.
The negative impact on left-behind children varies depending on whether the father or mother or both parents leave for overseas employment. Disciplining the children, especially sons, was cited as a major challenge for women, whose husbands were working abroad.
Boys are less obedient to mothers, often rebelling against maternal authority. In addition, left-behind boys are more vulnerable to drug addiction and premature sexual relationships. Early marriage is a major social cost borne by left-behind children, especially girls.
This is often the consequence of dropping out of school and the insecurity borne out of child abuse — two other widely mentioned social costs borne by the female children left behind. Both parents being away results in the highest social costs, and those left-behind children were the most affected.
A way forward
To increase available opportunities for migrants, we have to promote skilled migration. Most Bangladeshi migrants still leave the country with very limited skills and are thus especially vulnerable to exploitation by recruiters and employers who throw them into the most hazardous jobs at destination.
To address this, the honourable prime minister has made the skills development agenda a national priority. Vocational training centres are encouraged to provide competency-based training to help migrants gain access to wider job opportunities and higher paying jobs.
The study recommends formalizing the use of Union Digital Centres (UDCs) for migration processes. UDCs may replace the layers of middlemen. UDC migration desks could be set up where aspiring overseas workers could access services such as basic forms and photo identification, employment, and visa processing information, etc.
UDCs could also collect fees on behalf of the recruitment sector. The study suggests increasing awareness at community levels and developing training programs on soft skills (such as language and etiquette) and hard skills. In the long term, the study recommends curbing visa trading by regulating agents and monitoring the recruitment process.
It is recommended that the government work with youth and community groups to enhance awareness around child marriage and drug abuse. The study recommends the establishment of Youth Community-Based Organizations (YCBOs) for crisis management and counselling. Children left behind should be kept in schools, and for this, families, communities, and schools have a responsibility to keep dropout rates low.
Shazia Omar is an activist, a writer and yogini. www.shaziaomar.com.