How to regulate control valves with ease and without harassment? What procedures to follow for payment from workers, to recruiting agents, etc.? How to constitute the control cell? Who or what bodies should represent the cell? Its terms of reference? These are but a few of the questions that need to be answered before designing the system. We must ensure that the system is fool-proof and there is no leakage through which a worker may be overtaxed. We also must take extreme care that imposition of such regulation does not affect this sensitive trade...If we can implement Data Bank to control pricing of manpower export, it will be huge leap forward for this sector. Complete transparency in the trade will prevail.
Of late, there is a growing awareness among 'think-tanks' of society to assign due importance to manpower export, hitherto denied to this Golden Goose of our economy. The backlash of the dwindling foreign currency reserve may have stirred this concern. More so, as the donor agencies have joined the team to prod the issue of streamlining development of this sector and reining in diverted remittances. May be these are good omens for the country, as our governments are more responsive to prodding by foreign donors. It is hard to believe that finance ministers avoid highlighting role of this sector in their budget speeches, let alone making any budget provision for its development. We choose to forget that total remittances by our expatriates are much higher than the combined flow of foreign aid disbursement and foreign direct investment. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) in its Quarterly Economic Update for December, 2001 report emphasized 'taking institutional initiatives to increase export of manpower and divert remittances from illegal channels to official channels' (The Daily Star, 18th January, 02). By culture, we wake up only when emergency knocks. If the newspapers are correct in what they say, we don't have even enough reserve of foreign currency to drag us for next three months!
This sector is suffering and needs major reform measures and visionary steps to reclaim its true role as the main economic engine for development. The most formidable problem manpower sector faces today is the extremely unhealthy and unethical competition among the recruiting agents. About 99 per cent recruiting agents do their marketing in Middle East, especially in Saudi Arabia, through Bangladeshi worker-turned-subagents/middlemen. These middlemen procure manpower demand, rather negotiate/quote for it at very high cost from employers or employers' agents. They pay in cash for such demand either to employer or his agent. In the past, the scenario was the other way round. It was the employer who used to pay service charges to the recruiting agent for locating and sending the workers. In some cases, they used to pay for passage/air ticket too. The scenario is reversed not only for Bangladesh but also for other labour exporting countries. Now we pay and also supply cheap labour. Our self-employed sub-agents procure and sell demands to recruiting agents in Bangladesh. The documents change hands once the sub-agent receives money from recruiting agent through Hundi. The crux of the problem is that such middlemen operating in Middle East are too many.
Pressure of 1.50 crore people striving to go abroad on employment against a supply of three lac jobs every year leaves little choice for the incumbent recruits but to pay the price demanded by the recruiting agent. The recruiting agents virtually face no problem in selling a visa at whatever price they ask. On the other end, the middlemen operating there does not face any problem too as many eager principals are awaiting back home to take the demand at any cost. Currently purchasing cost of visa of salary range SR 300 to 400 (equivalent to Tk. 4500 to 6000) has gone up to SR 6,000 to 6,500 (equivalent to Tk. 90,000 to 97,500). Add to this the cost of air-ticket and other incidentals plus a profit for the recruiting agent and the ultimate price paid by the worker is pushed to Tk. 1.30 to 1.40 lacs. One important fact is that actual profit of recruiting agent remains as before, the same profit they used to get in eighties when the cost of visa was one-fifth of today's.
In fact price enhancement by competition is immensely benefiting the employer or his agent. Nowadays, many Saudi contractors take into consideration expected revenue from sale of visa while quoting for government jobs. Disregard of ethical business norms and cut throat competition among sub-agents are all pervading. This has earned a bad name for the trade. The worker becomes desperate when he finds that his expectations are not matching the cost he paid for the job. Such disgruntled worker creates problems for the host country too. In addition to job-hopping he creates social problems. The situation is alarming! Malaysia has already stopped issuance of visa on Bangladesh primarily for this reason. No sooner a new market is opened it is spoiled by competition among recruiting agents or rather the worker-turned-middlemen, vying with each other to procure business at any cost. The scenario is no different in Korea, where very limited number of renowned agents are allowed to operate, presumably in an orderly manner. But price an expatriate paying to go there is not less than Tk. 3 lacs! The other dark side of the problem is sliding salary scale. Our agents are compromising lower and lower salary for workers and offering higher and higher price for visa.
Bangladesh happens to be the supplier of cheapest labour force in the world with the irony that we are champion in bidding highest price for visa, be it for skilled or unskilled workers. Inexplicably, the situation is not same with other labour exporting countries of the sub-continent. A Nepali recruiting agent never pays more than SR 1200 for a worker to Saudi employer/agent. A Pakistani never exceeds SR 2000 and an Indian remains well within SR 3000. Why is the case so different with us? Why are we not united on this issue or are we less patriot than our neighbours? Why our concern for workers' welfare is extinct? Or is it because we have no options other than marketing in Middle East and they have other markets to fall back upon? We are handing over tons of money to foreigners and also the worker with lowest salary in the world!
Fortunately awareness has dawned on our agents. In a recent meet of BAIRA in a local hotel welcoming the new State Minister for Expatriates' Welfare & Overseas Employment Ministry, almost all the speakers voiced their concern. Unless high purchasing cost of visa is controlled and brought into a cohesive ethical norms and effective compulsions imposed, there is no scope for sustainable growth of manpower sector. Annoyed governments of labour importing countries may choose to close import from Bangladesh, as happened in Malaysia. Recruiting agents have to be brought under a transparent system. Instances are aplenty where a worker could not even retrieve the capital he invested in working abroad. Frustrated workers create social problems, resort to job-hopping, do unauthorized odd jobs, and ultimately end up getting caught by police and put in jail or deported back. The issue is a vast subject and needs introspection, policy formulation, broad based debates, scrutiny/study of systems followed by neighboring countries, political and bureaucratic will with the ultimate aim to streamline growth of the sector without jeopardizing it by unwarranted check valves. Government must only work as facilitator of both promotion and regulation. Any attempt at direct involvement of government in procurement or supply of manpower can jeopardize the trade to non-returnable situation. Past experience in such effort through BOESL is pointer enough. The only choice is to find a pragmatic and compulsive system to restrain the migration cost to viable limits, without killing the drive of private enterprise.
Essence of the solution lies in making the role of middlemen redundant. One of the systems that can be implemented is to control it by a computer data bank. In addition to providing access of recruiting agents to instant information on availability of skilled and un-skilled workers, the databank can be so designed to control visa purchasing by controlling selling price of visa to the workers. Recruiting agents will be compelled to recruit only from listed candidates of data bank. For example, rules can be formulated on salary slabs. Say, for a salary range of SR 350 to 400 per month, the price to be paid to employer/foreign agent must not exceed SR 2000. In that case, assessing the total cost involved and a profit margin for the agent, selling price of the visa can be fixed at, say Tk. 65,000. Likewise, higher the salary, higher can be the purchasing price. The controlling compulsions for the agent will be: (a) that he has to recruit from only the list of workers provided by the databank; in such case there will be no pre-selection and prior interaction with incumbent recruits; (b) that he will get his payments at stages from the Payment Cell of databank; there will be no transaction of worker with the recruiting agent. Once the recruiting agent is confirmed that he can sell visa only through databank and at a price fixed by a system, he will never purchase visa at higher cost. This is only a broad outline. Lot of discussion, debate, general meetings of recruiting agents and seminars with all concerned must be held before we can arrive at a consensus mechanism. There is no point in enriching the employer by offering higher and higher price for visa. It's a never-ending vicious circle.
How to regulate control valves with ease and without harassment? What procedures to follow for payment from workers, to recruiting agents, etc.? How to constitute the control cell? Who or what bodies should represent the cell? Its terms of reference? These are but a few of the questions that need to be answered before designing the system. We must ensure that the system is fool-proof and there is no leakage through which a worker may be overtaxed. We also must take extreme care that imposition of such regulation does not affect this sensitive trade.
If we can implement Data Bank to control pricing of manpower export, it will be huge leap forward for this sector. Complete transparency in the trade will prevail. There will be no disgruntled worker, and people can go abroad at reasonable and viable cost. Unhealthy competition among recruiting agents will minimize. We forget one basic fact that foreign employers need workers as badly as we need to supply them. So, there will be no effect on manpower export due to reduced purchasing price. Touts and middleman will be eliminated. Every recruiting agent will agree that the main beneficiary of all his activities is employer. He not only gets the cheapest labour in the world but also earns huge money just by doing the favour of employing a poor man. We have no choice but to unite and find out a pragmatic solution.
Abdul Alim is Joint Secretary General, BAIRA
Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, April 4, 2002
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