OPINION: Bangladeshi migrants in limbo
By Shamsul Huda
10 January 2017

RIYADH (The Daily Star/ANN) - This indigenisation of jobs is not new in Saudi Arabia.

Bangladesh should be wary of sending migrant workers to Saudi Arabia. This is a concern brewing in the wake of the Kingdom's recently announced “Saudi Vision 2030” in which Saudisation of jobs was earmarked as one of the top priorities with the aim of weaning the private sector companies off expatriates.

Lately, replacements of foreign workers have been prevalent, and are conspicuously and gradually gaining force. In their latest drive, the Saudi government has kept the entire retail market of mobile phone sets and their accessories off limits to foreign workers. As a result, several hundred thousand of Bangladeshis, Indians et al have lost their employment. 

This indigenisation of jobs is not new in the Kingdom. Earlier, it restricted wholesale and retail trading of vegetables, gold and jewellery outlets and many other job categories both in private and public sectors to only Saudis. And yet again, the Saudi government is now considering Saudising small grocery shops which have sprung up in large numbers in almost every locality of the Kingdom. Understandably, this move will add more to expatriates' woes.

Saudi Arabia is the largest country for Bangladeshi workers hosting close to one-fifth of an estimated 10 million Bangladeshis working abroad. After a nearly seven-year moratorium on Bangladeshi recruitment, the Saudi government lifted its ban in late 2016 after the landmark visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to the Kingdom. 

The opening of Saudi labour market doesn't bode well for Bangladeshis since the Kingdom has been grappling with a severe financial crisis due to the drastic fall in oil prices in the international markets. This has already affected the country and will have ripple effects on the economy as a whole and in particular on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), small scale industrial units, and retail and construction sectors in which Bangladeshis have been engaged mostly. Unable to withstand the economic slowdown coupled with government pressure on the Saudisation issue, these hard-hit enterprises have already axed many of their expatriate workers.

Bangladeshis who are already in the Kingdom have started feeling the heat. Many have either lost their jobs or been facing unemployment and certainly, a similar fate awaits the newcomers who are leaving their country to try their luck. Bangladesh government should be aware of what lies ahead for its foreign currency earners.

Less than six months after the opening of visas, Bangladesh, probably unaware of underlying consequences, has started dispatching its workforce to the Kingdom in droves. According to the latest statistics released by the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET), in all, 143,913 workers arrived in Saudi Arabia with nearly half of them landing in the Kingdom during the fourth quarter of 2016.

Alongside males, a significant volume of female workers, mainly housemaids, have been sent to Saudi Arabia. Last year, a record number of around 68,286 female workers went to the Kingdom bringing the accumulated figure to 121,375 over the last 26 years. This juxtaposes with the total number of 574,075 Bangladeshi women currently working in as many as 68 countries. In 2015, nearly 20,000 Bangladeshi maids arrived in the Kingdom.

Female workers have streamed into the Kingdom due to the fact that Saudi government has tied the issuance of new visas for male workers from Bangladesh to the recruitment of housemaids. The Kingdom wants to hire several hundred thousand female helps who are in high demand since a number of major suppliers such as Philippines and Indonesia have been balking at sending their female workers to the Kingdom.

Their reluctance is mostly due to the 'runaway' problem which has become a serious issue. And in the case of Bangladeshis, it is no exception. According to a local recruiting agency, over 50 per cent of Bangladeshi housemaids have deserted their sponsors. This is an alarming issue which needs to be taken seriously.

Although a number of reasons have been cited behind housemaids running away, it is not clear whether any realistic approach has been put in place until now to redress their grievances. It is found that soon after their arrival, Bangladeshi maids feel like fish out of water because of their language barrier, inability of adapting themselves to the Kingdom's culture and tradition and lack of training to operate household appliances. And of course, they have faced ill-treatment which is apparently laid bare to all. Nevertheless, more Bangladeshi female workers are being delivered to the Kingdom.

On the other hand, visa trading for male workers has started anew with a vengeance after the Kingdom opened its doors to Bangladeshis. A group of so-called 'middlemen' have jumped on this golden opportunity charging a visa three to four times higher than the government fixed amount of Tk 1.65 lakh (7,857 Saudi Riyal (SR)). But this government-set amount has also raised questions of what the rationale is behind the extortionate rate in visa processing fees. By any means, it is not justified when workers from other countries like the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Indonesia are coming to the Kingdom almost free of cost.   According to Saudi labour laws, local sponsors or employers are to bear all the migration expenses of their expatriate workers but in the case of Bangladesh, it seems to be the opposite.  

Bangladesh government once tried another method by establishing a database to register job-seekers for Middle Eastern countries with the objective of sending workers at a cost of less than 20,000 taka. While talking to this writer, former Expatriates' Welfare & Overseas Employment minister, Engineer Khandker Mosharraf Hossain, during his visit to the Kingdom, promised a paradigm shift in the recruitment process by sending workers abroad with penny ante expenses. His move turned out to be an abject failure and apparently he had to give in to a syndicate of unscrupulous visa traders.

Saudi government has taken the visa trading issue seriously. It has announced new laws whereby a 15-year jail sentence will be served to anyone found involved in such illegal trading. But on its part, Bangladesh does little to dissuade visa traders from their business. If both countries do not synchronise their steps to prevent visa trading, it will continue unabated and Bangladesh will lose large sums of foreign currency by way of 'visa buying'.

For instance, Bangladesh sent a total of 75,627 male workers to the Kingdom last year. And if a visa was bought with 30,000 riyal, the combined total amount funnelled out of the country stands at 45.37 billion taka.

Bangladesh government must put a stop to visa trading by eliminating middlemen in order to well benefit from the huge Saudi labour market which has the potential of hiring hundreds of thousands of workers from Bangladesh in the years to come.

The writer is a journalist at the Saudi Commerce & Economic Review.


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