In recent times, the people of the country have been overwhelmed with all the good news about Bangladesh in the national and international media, especially about the health of the economy, its potential for growth and the probability of our becoming an economic powerhouse in the next decade or two. Bangladesh has been ranked one of the fastest growing economies in the world and the Asian Development Bank has recently estimated that we are destined to become the fastest growing economy in Asia, surpassing even China and India. While ADB estimated a GDP growth rate of 8 per cent for Bangladesh it forecast 7.3 for India and 6 for China. However, many Indian and international economists estimated that, with the rate at which the Indian economy is sliding, it may drop to as close as 3 per cent. The constant rise in the cost of living and consumer price index in India are ominous signs.
In recent times, the value of the Indian rupee has kept on declining against the US dollar. Currently the difference in value between Bangladesh Taka and Indian Rupee is the narrowest in the last four decades. Bangladesh has managed to maintain a stable value of its currency and, defeating the theory of many classical economists, the export earnings of Bangladesh have increased by approximately 4 per cent. The Geneva-based World Economic Forum (WEF) projected that, with this growth rate, Bangladesh is destined to become the 24th largest economy by 2030, surpassing many European countries and Australia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Vietnam and South Africa.Amidst all this encouraging news, comes more: that amongst the top ten foreign exchange remitting countries, Bangladesh has ranked 10th – falling even behind Nigeria, Pakistan, Ukraine and Vietnam, according to recent data published by the WEF. Approximately ten million expatriate workers toil outside Bangladesh, mostly in the Middle East, Malaysia, US, UK, and Singapore. During the last fiscal year, the total remittance sent by 10 million expatriates to Bangladesh amounted to approximately 16 billion US dollars, whereas the net remittance in Pakistan stands at around 22 billion (for nine million expatriates) and the Philippines US $26 billion (with just three million expatriates) according to the World Bank report. Besides the formal banking sector, there are other informal mechanisms to remit money to the home country by expatriate workers. To encourage the remittance to flow in through the formal sector, the Government of Bangladesh has announced an incentive of 2 per cent on every remittance but so far, due to bureaucratic tangles, this has not been implemented.
The other side of the coin is that there are no fewer than five hundred thousand foreigners working in Bangladesh, mostly in the readymade garment and textile industries. The number in IT also keeps on increasing. However, how many foreigners are working in Bangladesh is something of a mystery as different ministries and government agencies give different figures. The conservative estimate says the five hundred thousand expatriates remit about 5 billion US dollars from Bangladesh, the highest amount going to India. However, the monthly magazine ‘Textile Today’ of 3 October 2019 wrote that the figure for both legal and illegal expats working in Bangladesh is much higher than perceived, and, for India, Bangladesh is the fourth largest remittance source at about US$ 8 billion yearly. Whatever may be the figure, it is not debatable that Bangladesh loses a huge amount of foreign exchange through reverse remittance.
While approximately 46 per cent of university graduates are unemployed in Bangladesh, why do employers need foreigners in their work places, paying them at least three times the salary they would pay a local and why do ten million expatriates remit so little compared to Nigeria, Pakistan, Vietnam and the Philippines? The reasons are many. According to CPD, a local think tank, the current readymade garments sector needs highly-skilled workers to keep up with ever-changing fashion technology and, more importantly, in most cases technology is replacing labour. The winds of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are blowing not only over the RMG sector but also many other sectors. Many of the current jobs will be phased out soon. They cannot be protected anymore. As such, the country needs a sound policy to protect job seekers through providing them with skills and know-how that will be able to keep pace with the ever-shrinking life span of a technology.
Another problem with the local employment seekers is not only do they lack basic soft skills but also want to work within the four walls of an air-conditioned office located in downtown Dhaka, whereas production houses may be located in Savar, Gazipur, Narayanganj or Kanchpur. Those coming from abroad will work anywhere and often in uncomfortable conditions, sacrificing some basic comforts of life.
Regarding expatriates, currently 50 per cent workers going out of Bangladesh to work are unskilled and have to sell their labour at one third of the price commanded by their fellow workers from India, China, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, Malaysia or Nigeria. In one large garment factory a couple of years back, I saw few washing plant supervisors from as far away as Columbia. One of the suicidal decisions of the Ministry of Labour and Employment was to send unskilled house maids to the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia. Not only were they sexually abused by their employers but also physically tortured and were compelled to live in squalid, inhuman conditions. Most of them have already returned and as soon as they land in Dhaka the media takes their harrowing tales to the nation. It is a disgrace for any civilised country for allowing their simple women folks to be abused in such a way in a far away country. On the other hand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and India also send female workers to the Middle East but they are trained in nursing, health care, IT and sometimes work as faculty members at universities. They do not have to go through the inhuman torture of their employers because they provide services which may not be easy to find.
How does Bangladesh get out of this shameful condition and improve the performance of its expatriate workers in terms not only of remittances but also working conditions and human dignity? The only answer is a complete overhaul of our education system from school to university level. The education system must promote not only the theoretical base needed by a person to become a respectable, dignified and responsible citizen but also must provide the skills necessary in the present day context. Merely getting a university degree will not serve any purpose. Graduates who have the skills and know-how often do not have to run after jobs – on the contrary, jobs run after them. Every degree should include job skills as they do in Scandinavian countries, Japan or Korea. The concerned Ministry and education providers must constantly be on the lookout for what are emerging skills that will be needed by graduates (both from high schools and universities) to be employed once they finish their schooling. This will have to be done on a continuous basis and the learners must get hands-on training along with their theoretical knowledge.In a recent interview given on an electronic media an employer in the ship building industry disclosed he was interviewing some young graduates to do welding in his shipyard. He was amazed to see that few private university graduates turned up for the interview but disappointed him as none of them have actually done welding during their university days. The story is the same for many private university graduates. They teach subjects like mechanical engineering or textile engineering without having any facilities to provide them with hands on training. The government has been emphasising the need for introduction of skill developing education but so far not much progress has been made in real terms. In India in many states, a sizeable number of non-Muslims are enrolled in madrasas and, when asked what made them choose such religious schools for their education, their answer was that madrasas are good places for skill development training. In Bangladesh let the skill development education be given a priority at all levels of education and we can be sure in about ten years the results will be pouring in. As a nation we are happy and proud to project out achievements made at home but seldom realise that in a hyper competitive world to be in the front line of achievements the holes that drain out results of our achievements must be plugged as quickly. The policy makers must be proactive in making policy decisions and not wait to be a witness to experience what withholds us in unleashing all the potentials of success.
The writer is an analyst and a commentator. Currently he teaches at ULAB