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immigrant-passport office-hassleI was returning to Washington from a whirlwind trip to Bangladesh. When I boarded the plane in Dhaka, I found myself sitting next to Ahmad, a 23-year lad from a little village called Nalakhala in Faridpur. He came to Dhaka a few days ago for his trip and stayed with his sister in Kalyanpur, where his brother-in-law is an imam of a local mosque. Shy-looking and petit, Ahmad was talking to his mother over the cellphone. I listened intently. His mother, I could imagine, was distraught that her young son was embarking on a perilous, uncertain journey across the Arab Sea. “Don’t cry, ma,” Ahmad comforted his mother “say prayers five times a day and pray for me every time.” It was a typically melancholic, pre-departure mother-son dialogue that went on until the plane proceeded to the taxiway.

“Where are you heading?” I asked as I helped Ahmad buckle up.

“Muscat (Oman),” he said nervously.

As it turns out, his adam bepari (manpower merchant) assured him that it was to be a one-way ticket to utopia where he would earn money aplenty. The down payment for this utopia was a hefty taka 3 lakh.

“What will you be doing in Muscat?” I inquired.

“I don’t know. My cousin is there. Once I get there he will tell me.”

“Did you receive any job training before this trip?”

“No.”

“Did you go to school?”

“I dropped out of school when I was in class five,” Ahmad said.

“Do you have any skills?”

“I have been working in a tailor shop.”

“Do you know how far Muscat is from Bangladesh?”

“No. I heard it’s really far.”

“How much do you think you will earn a month in Muscat?”

“I don’t know. My cousin will tell me.”

“Would you know how to change plane in Doha?”

“No. Bhai, would you help me? This is my first ever journey by myself.”

I asked for his boarding pass and checked it and assured him that I’d take him to his departure gate before I went to mine. I have to confess that I took an anthropological interest in Ahmad who, to me, represented a worryingly typical story of unskilled labour migration from Bangladesh.

What emerged through the conversation was the conflicting yet admirable image of a young man: nervous but resolute about his future; naïve but extraordinarily nonchalant about the uncertain life ahead; uneducated but eager to learn. Ahmad was clueless about the geography of his destination country. He seemed to have no knowledge of its society. He had no idea what it meant to be called “sir” by the polite flight attendant. He appeared fascinated by the fleeting clouds as he intensely gazed through the airplane window.

At the risk of exhibiting a bourgeois sense of superiority, I found Ahmad’s story and his pursuit of good life fascinating. I tried to imagine how he is going to fit in or cope with the exploitative unskilled labour market in an alien country. With no language skills, no marketable skills, and no sense of his legal rights, what is the nature of his vulnerability in a foreign land? If he were my younger brother, would I have let him go on with this brutally Darwinist journey of the survival of the fittest? I also tried to discern how Ahmad is going to remake the economic landscape of his motherland.

The migrant labour market has robustly contributed to the economy of Bangladesh through remittances of foreign exchange. By exporting manpower to developed destinations, Bangladesh over the past three decades or so has emerged as a key player in the migrant labour market. In fact, Bangladesh accounts for about three per cent of the global remittance income. Nearly five million Bangladeshis work abroad. Every year over a quarter million Bangladeshis join the migrant labour force in foreign lands. The country receives an annual remittance amount of over US $5 billion through official channels and approximately US $4 billion through unofficial channels. There have been studies to formulate strategies to raise Bangladesh’s annual remittance income to US $30 billion a year by 2015.

No doubt Ahmad will make a contribution to this US $30 billion dream in coming years. Yet official policies treat the ilk of Ahmad merely like cogs in the abstractive wheel of economic development. The dehumanisation of unskilled human resources begins from the airport (and the offices of manpower agencies). The immigration officials contemptuously corral them to the airplane gate like cattle. Abusive languages are the norm. Fellow passengers routinely poke fun at their alleged lack of personal hygiene and etiquettes, and laugh at their eagerness to retrieve their personal belongings as soon as the plane touches the ground. They happily take the side of the rude flight attendant when she berates the migrant worker for the flimsiest of reasons. Passengers bound for America and Europe abhor the Bangladesh-Middle East segment because uncouth labourers in the airplane spoil their superior self-image.

If you look around a bit prior to your next flight, you will see how Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka provides ample moments of social schadenfreude (pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others), in which the migrant workers find their basic dignity diminished. The country loves the sweet money they send home, but it hardly treats them with respect. Our economic policy wonks and political leadership have traditionally milked unskilled migrant workers for the country’s economic growth, yet they have persistently trampled on the workers’ social visibility.

This dehumanising culture must change.

But expecting superior moral attitudes from airport officials, political leaders, policymakers, and fellow passengers toward migrant workers seems both unrealistic and unachievable in the near future. Instead, I propose empowering unskilled migrant workers with some basic knowledge and survival skills.

Before receiving visas for unskilled labourers, manpower agencies should be held accountable for sending them to a two-week, basic survival emersion programme (not job training which is a different story), organised by a third party to avoid the conflict of interest. This mandatory certificate programme should teach migrant labourers the key issues of human rights; basic geography and climate of the destination country; rudimentary language skills including common greetings; airport navigation and airplane etiquettes including lavatory usage; and basic banking (so that they are not exploited by the predatory apparatuses of international remittance).

Many would argue that this is over ambitious a programme and would slow down the manpower supply line. On the contrary. It would bring efficiency to the supply line, while empowering the workers with common knowledge necessary to survive in a cutthroat labour market. It will make them less vulnerable at the hands of their employers.

In five hours between Dhaka and Doha, I shared with Ahmad as much as I knew and he seemed eager and quick to learn. The first thing I told him was that he had some basic rights that should not be taken away from him under any circumstances. His work must be compensated reasonably. He understood that the airport officials had no right to mistreat him just because he was unskilled. He almost didn’t eat his chicken and frittata in the airplane because he was too intimidated by the need to use a fork and knife. But he quickly learned how to use them. He didn’t know that there were toilets in the airplane, so he refrained from drinking water. But soon he grasped the basics of an airplane’s interior organisation.

The manpower agency that procured a visa for Ahmad to work in Oman should have already prepared him to undertake his job with dignity and a sense of self-worth.

I needed to go to gate 15 in Doha to catch my next plane, Ahmad gate 10. He was struggling with the idea of a departure gate. We walked to gate 10 first. When, as I was about to say goodbye, he shook my hand and said, “bhai, onek upakar korlen” (you helped me a lot), I reckoned that Ahmad taught me a more enlightened lesson in human dignity and courage than what I could merely tell him about airports and airplanes.

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Dr. Adnan Morshed teaches in Washington, DC.

17 Responses to “Ahmad and the unskilled labour market”

  1. Nurul Choudhury

    Your points are all valid, but I have to disagree with you, I thought it was a lovely article. Travelling from London or New York to Dhaka, the Middle Eastern leg of the journey is the smelly uncomfortable part. The part that I wish it did not have to take. The article reminded me that these were our fellow countrymen and human beings.

    Dr Morshed gave a human face and importance to this human drama. In the US we have Ellis Island, similar immigrants are being treated as heroes who built America. Yet we so belittle and take for granted our own ‘heroes’ – their remittances are helping build Bangladesh. The article made us care a little about them too.

    Yes it is true we as Bangladeshis need to give better support to our fellow countrymen. But perhaps we do not give that support is because we don’t think about it much. Do we even see them as people?

    We talk about the government doing something about it. But the government is not some abstract concept, but the actions of people like us and doing the thing we care about. Can you actually care without empathy? We Bangladeshis seem to lack empathy (I put myself in that category). Somebody once jokingly said, “Bangalis – we love our land, we love our language, we love our culture, but hate our people”

    Like you, I have lived abroad for most of my life and the one thing I have learnt is that things get done when people care for something. I applaud the author for not talking abut politics, greed or corruption but for looking at the young man sitting next and caring enough about that experience to write about it.

    To Dr Morshed, thank you for sharing your experience. Perhaps more people will give a moment’s thought about these Bangladeshi adventurers, and not think of them as just annoying smelly shirts sitting next to us.

  2. Sam

    We can draw many realistic pictures of our existing problems, but hardly someone can identify the CAUSE of those problems; and resolving them – is way far!!

  3. Mohammed Biswas

    Adnan Morshed by the genius of his storytelling captures a deeply rooted cultural divide and a political reality in this poignant story, that we all experience travelling in and out of Bangladesh only to feel a sense of helplessness as well as hopelessness from the utter disregard and disinterest by the government of Bangladesh to protect the interests of its own, even in exchange for billions of dollars and one cannot but join in with Dr. Morshed’s call for an end to this dehumanizing culture and empowering of the migrant workers, a worthwhile cause perhaps for non-governmental organizations to take the lead.

  4. Ezajur Rahman

    Some time back, I met a former foreign minister in the Middle East and asked him why our people are ‘exported’ in such a way. His reply: “Bangladesh is in such a condition that we must export as many Bangladeshis abroad, under whatever circumstances and for whatever salary.”

  5. anna Choudhury

    This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever read! Do you really think adam beaparis will provide such training. And they won’t do it, because they want uneducated labour. So why not attack the route of the problem, which is lack of education in Bangladesh. Why not address the problem of political parties affecting and recruiting the Muslim youth so that they can’t create a better Bangladesh.

    If the youth and the public could become educated they could build a Bangladesh, that doesn’t need to send its people overseas. All your silly immersion programme will do is teach the migrant workers the meaning of Sir, and toilet. But their treatment in foreign countries will not change, because after all they are migrant workers. So stop creating pseudo solutions and open your eyes to the real problem.

    If an educated man like the writer gives up on bringing a change to Bangladesh’s government, then Bangladesh is done for.

    Lastly, I wonder how this is the first time Adnan Morshed is meeting a migrant worker, since he was born in Bangladesh. When I, a young American born woman of Bangladeshi descent, know all too well what’s happening in my land of my heritage.

  6. Arch. REZA

    Thanks dear Adnan, I appreciate your article on our unskilled workers going abroad mainly coming from the agriculture background.

    Why are we sending these people in foreign countries instead of our trained/educated people available here? It is for earning more money only, because in most of the cases, the trained people (already in the job) are usually reluctant to pay such a huge amount of money seeking foreign employment. While the illiterate/unskilled agricultural workers cannot but take the risk and consecutively, are exploited by the dalals (brokers) on a regular basis.

    As a consequence, we are destroying our country’s image as well as ruining our agriculture sector.

    So, I think strict guidelines should be followed as regards our work forces and foreign employment in order to ensure the right persons for the right jobs in the foreign land. All the best wishes!

  7. afsan chowdhury

    Great post.

    I think one reason why migrants are ignored is because they are from a poor background. In our politics the poor are perceived as voters but not beneficiaries which is why we treat them that way.

    In the rural areas, changes are occurring as a result of returnees and remittances which are high compared to other sectors. Returnees have also become a new group of rural elite challenging the traditional ones.

    These changes are inevitable as resources flow in to wherever it is allowed but wish the state would find better places for investment of remittance money both legal and otherwise. Most remittance never make it to the banks.

  8. Nazim

    Excellent piece.

    I like to echo your voice “This dehumanising culture must change”.

    I am a frequent flier and used to similar experiences, but Dr. Morshed narrated the story more appropriately – in apt languages and sentiment.

    Can we hope that the government, manpower agencies, airport authorities and other relevant people will read this article and will try to do something in this regards.

  9. Jesmin

    Excellent writing! In Dhaka airport when I walked through the departure gate, I saw how inhumanly these migrant workers are treated.

    A few days ago, I watched a documentary in CBC showing the poor living condition of migrated people even in Dubai.

  10. ahmed

    Excellent topic and nicely covered. I believe the government can do little in this regard as they are busy with other things.

    Here is a business idea for those who is looking for investing in Bangladesh. (Profit margin may be low but it will definitely serve for the betterment of the motherland.)

    Thanks Mr. Morshed.

  11. Sheih M. Belal

    Excellent. A to Z. I wish our policymakers took a break from the comfort of their business class seats and tried to play Adnan next time they are on board a plane.

    I know things are improving in certain ways but this is one of the priority areas with which we are procrastinating at our own peril.

    Thanks Adnan for your excellent piece. I am thoroughly touched.

  12. sajjad

    Thanks Adnan for the write-up.

    Many of us have witnessed the dehumanisation process of those migrant workers starting at Dhaka airport and onwards and have done little about it. We also saw how badly they are treated on arrival and how they are fleeced at each step.

    But when did we, the Bangladeshi shahebs treat our workers better? How do we treat the young boys or girls who work for us as domestic help? We, first, need education and training in these matters. We need to understand the dignity of labour. May be some one like you will write another article on that.

    Thanks again, brother.

  13. Hasan

    A good piece of writing. It reminds me of some similar stories on my journey to Middle Eastern and east-Asian route. I can’t agree more with the writer on “self empowering basic skill training” for the migrant unskilled workers …

  14. Syed Imtiaz Ali

    Beautifully written piece, from all counts! Thank you Dr Adnan.

    There is an organisation by name only that is supposed to prepare the new recruits for the job market with some basic skills. But alas! NO and NIL Sincerity or effectiveness.

    Ahmad’s story, so passionately told, is so illuminating and ‘correct’. The authorities concerned don’t seem to have any plan/programme to turn these unskilled workers into skilled ones. And it is a harsh truth.

    Let us see if there is a change of heart as a result of Ahmad’s story.
    As regards treating them right, nothing could be truer and more aptly pointed out. These workers are shunned, looked down upon, brow-beaten and FLEECED, by one and all… the travel agent, airlines, immigration and et all. It is high time our great thinkers and decision makers spared some thought and drew out a practical and realistic programme to assist them at all barriers and took steps to smoothen their flow; in or out, and take care of their hard-earned wages.

    We are indeed ungrateful to the wage-earners. Let us change that.

    Thanks again for the write-up.

  15. Farseem

    A well-written and timely essay. But unfortunately, this and many others like it will go unheeded. We will take the sweet money and keep forgetting the Ahmads, Jalals, Hanifs who we find dwindling in the Middle-Eastern airports.

  16. Somnath GuhaRoy

    Great work, Dr. Morshed! for a “Shobhyotaar pilsoojbaahi”. I appreciate your empathy and concern. I’ve felt the same way many times. They bring in the money for our 3rd world economies -yet are treated shabbily by those who consider themselves superior only because they were lucky enough to be born in better situations. Regards.

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