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The History and Political Economy of Labour Migration

Bangladesh would be a very different place, and far poorer, without the high-volume international migration of unskilled young men to the Middle East. Labour migration was not new to people in East Bengal, but they had not to date been active in its more organized forms. Efforts to abolish indentured labour started in 1910 and were legislated on under the Emigration Act of 1922. In the 1920s, British Indian officials negotiated over the conditions of Indian migrants in east and South Africa, Mauritius, Ceylon, and Malaya (Shirras 1931), just as the present-day Bangladesh government lobbies migrant-receiving countries to protect Bangladeshi workers. Emigration concerns related in particular to the exploitation of unskilled workers sponsored by private agents, and the 1922 Act sought to license 'Passage Brokers', the sea-based equivalents of the present-day recruiting agents. Men from Chittagong and Nohakhali on the coast had been mobile for centuries (for instance, Chan 2005; see also Siddiqui 2003). However, documented emigrants from East Bengal appear to have been relatively few, particularly compared to the flow of southern Indians departing in the early twentieth century (World Bank 1981).

Within India, labour migration was a common survival strategy after the famine- and recession-studded late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Davis 2001). There were 1.7 million migrants from other parts of India in Bengal alone at the beginning of the twentieth century (de Haan 1997). Bengalis themselves moved elsewhere in Southeast Asia, sometimes seasonally. The historical period leading up to Bangladesh's independence, partition in the 1940s, and the refugee crisis after the liberation war of independence had displaced millions of people, so that this was a population accustomed to moving and being among (or subject to) outsiders—a collective experience that marked social and political identities as Bengali Muslims, Bengalees, or Bangladeshis (Feldman 1999; Feldman 2003).

Apart from with Britain, where Sylhetis moved from the 1950s, there were no established legal migration routes. The migration corridor with the Middle East opened up in the early 1960s, when small numbers of men moved to

Saudi and Qatar for work on an unofficial basis, sometimes taking advantage of Muslims' rights to visit the holy sites of Islam to stay and work. This was easy at first, but—unlike (West) Pakistanis and Indians—few in then-East Pakistan knew about job opportunities in the Middle East. Bengalis were soon found by employers to be 'hard-working, disciplined and more productive', as well as cheaper than other workers. Some successful migrants encouraged employers to recruit more workers from Bengal, making the arrangements through their existing networks at home, setting the scene for labour migration en masse to the Middle East (World Bank 1981).

Mass labour migration to whichever country would take workers seemed almost inevitable in this context: 'The unemployment situation was gradually deteriorating, consequently the flow of labour migration to the Middle East started almost automatically' (World Bank 1981, 2). It is possible that fears of a substantial unemployed youth population reflected a potential political threat, in a context in which student politics had been particularly influential. Another push towards new migration may have come from the political crisis over illegal migration to Assam and other parts of India in the 1970s (see Franda 1981c).

In the early 1970s, the 'manpower export' business was a corrupt and risky prospect for workers, much like the old indentured gangs, except instead of ships, men were now moved by air. In 1976, the government started to establish policies to promote manpower export but also to regulate labour recruitment, but due to 'flexible conditions, recruiting agents grew like mushrooms and middlemen continued to exploit the prospective migrants in as many ways as they could' (World Bank 1981, 8). After independence, Bangladesh set up an independent body to handle manpower export matters, the Bureau of Manpower Export and Training, and from 2002 a dedicated Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment was tasked with overseeing recruitment, regulation, and return. The 2006 Bangladesh Overseas Employment Policy aimed to promote labour migration and protect workers while abroad, requiring migrant workers to have valid contracts and work visas, arranged by private recruitment agencies under official licence. A Wage Earners' Welfare Fund created in 1990 and funded through levies on employers and workers provides a range of assistance to workers and their families, and is managed by a board comprising government agencies and the recruiters' association BAIRA (the Bangladeshi Association of International Recruiting Agencies).[1]

The government of Bangladesh now takes a position on global migration matters, and in December 2016 chaired the ninth meeting of the Global

Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) in Dhaka. Announcing the event, the government declared that:

Migration is a sensitive, political, development and social issue and Bangladesh wants to push for its new governance structure in the GFMD, which is a global platform on discussion... [The Foreign Secretary] said attitude and perception towards migration need to be changed, otherwise the problems related to it would never solve. (Dhaka Tribune 2016)

In an astute move, Bangladesh proposed connecting improved global governance of migration to the Sustainable Development Goals, showing again how successfully the country's policymakers have turned the aid lab into their own machine.

  • [1] See Siddiqui (2005);also (accessed 30 July 2016).
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