by  F R Chowdhury

In the early days of independence our import used to be three to four times higher than our exports. This was an alarming situation. It could not go on like that. We knew Bangladesh had the potentials and that it would find new avenues to eventually balance the situation. Since then Bangladesh made remarkable progress in quite a number of areas.

Bangladesh now occupies the number two position globally in export of ready-made garments. There is still room for improvement. However, we must make some basic improvement in respect of health and safety in this sector to ensure that we can retain or even improve up on our position. Some major accidents and disasters have recently tarnished our image and before it can have a negative impact, we must address the issues. Making safer and better working conditions do not have to be very expensive. The industry (owners and employees) and the Government should work together to ensure safer working conditions. This can actually increase even the efficiency and make us more competitive. Let us not allow such industries to be operated in under-construction buildings leading to fire and death. I shall soon write on this issue separately.

Our second highest earning comes from remittances sent by our labour force abroad. Most of these people have no education or training and could have hardly contributed anything to our economy by staying back home. It is a big achievement. We shall come back to discuss this matter more in details as it is the subject matter of this article.

The next best progress we achieved is in the field of agriculture. We now produce three times more than what we produced in 1971. This has been achieved despite a reduction in available land for agriculture and an increased population. Unless there is a serious flood or cyclone, we are self-sufficient in food. We must congratulate the officials of our agriculture department working in villages with our farmers. It is because of their dedicated work our cultivators have learnt how to grow crops on land previously abandoned because of salinity.

Next we can talk about export of frozen fish. In many countries fishing is a part of agriculture. However, our Government retains a separate ministry of fisheries and livestock. Fishing is one sector that requires planning, protection, preservation and measured exploitation to allow for sustainable growth. Mr. Iqbal Ahmed of Sylhet and Manchester is a leader in this field. Others should follow him.

Last but not the least we shall talk about our ship-building industry. We made tremendous progress in this field. This sector needs some Government help. First of all Government should ban import of vessels under 5000 GT to provide our growing industry some degree of protection. Secondly government should create a special fund to grant loans against building contracts. This is essential because the interest rate on normal commercial loan in Bangladesh is too high to compete in international ship-building industry.

Now we shall discuss the subject matter of today’s article i.e. Export of our man-power and remittances received through them. At one time British empire was scattered all over the world. India was their pride possession. Thereafter wherever they went – Africa or even the Caribbean, they took Indians along as their loyal partners to work in the middle category as supervisor or foreman. This is one reason India still has a huge migrant population everywhere. The remittance sent back home by Indians exceed that of China or Mexico. The choice of my profession and career has taken me to almost every corner of the world. I have seen Bangladeshis working all over the world. I shall not include the doctors, engineers, bankers and professors abroad in today’s discussion. I shall talk more about the labour class of people who have gone out to earn a living. At the outset I must say that this avenue opened up only after 1971 as I hardly came across any Bangladeshi working abroad before 1971 except for a few in Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom. Today they are there almost everywhere. In Maldives, Bangladeshis constitute nearly 20% of the total population. Italy is perhaps one country where Bangladeshis outnumber the Indians.

With this story of success, there are sad stories of our people being cheated and deprived. Lack of education can be attributed to this misfortune. They know nothing about their rights and privileges and do get cheated at both ends – here in Bangladesh as well as where they go to earn a living. I travelled in the Middle-East very extensively (and lived in Bahrain for three years) where bulk of our labour force is employed. By ratio of population Philippines has the highest number of expatriate workers and their remittance back home is certainly highest compared to their size of population. How did Philippines achieve this success? They are number one in sending people to sea. There are more seafarers from Philippines than any other country. They hold another number one place. Nurses from Philippines can be seen in hospitals in United States, Canada, Australia, UK and the Middle-East.

Most of the Bangladeshis are employed as ordinary menial labourer for digging roads, carrying bricks, cement bags and such other job. In the restaurants, they are mostly employed in the kitchen, and not even as waiters because they would not be able to speak to customers and take orders properly.

In Middle-East the lowest category of employees are supposed to be domestic servants, here commonly referred to as Domestic Helper or Domestic Aid. Most of them come from Philippines and South India or Sri-Lanka. The DH from Philippines, apart from their special training in cooking, house-keeping, manners and etiquettes; speak excellent English and conversant with IT technology. Now you can understand where our labour force stands in comparison with them.

There is a huge demand for trained and qualified nurses, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, welders, fitters, auto-mechanic, diesel mechanic, refrigerator and air-condition mechanics. They all come either from Philippines or India. They are highly skilled people often having proficiency in more than one field. In Bangladesh we have been setting up universities one after another and thereby increasing the number of educated unemployed because hundreds of these graduates cannot be employed anywhere. Yet, in Dhaka or Chittagong when you look for a qualified plumber or electrician, it is difficult to find one. Instead of hundreds of general graduates with no specialization we need skilled technicians. We also need them to speak English and operate computers. We should adopt a big change in our education policy. We must have a fully equipped Polytechnic institute in every district to produce large number of technicians fully proficient in practical work. These courses should be preferably conducted in English so that there would be no need to teach English separately. Basic understanding and operation of IT/ Computer must be included in each of these courses. These Polytechnic institutes or separate Para-medical institutes should also produce good nurses and pharmacists. If we can bring in these changes, export of our man-power will increase manifold and the remittances will also go up. Besides they would not be cheated so easily. If we can arm our people with education and skill that are useful then we will not have desperate people anymore trying to go to Malaysia by boats and get drowned at sea.

I shall conclude this article by saying a few words about another group of people and that is our marine community. They have already earned a good name for the country and themselves. They earn a lot for the country which is not accounted for with remittances. It is real invisible income contributing to the national economic progress.