Millennium Post

No Arab spring for migrants

Good news for Bangladesh: it was the worst sufferer in South Asia on account of the Libyan crisis in early 2011, but has now recovered economically.

Remittances from West Asia remained healthy in 2011 for India and Bangladesh, indicating that the Arab spring sweeping over Egypt, Tunisia and Libya had not negatively impacted the economies of South Asian countries. Some workers had to return home, but their numbers were not large. World Bank studies show that a large number of African migrant workers to these countries had suffered a heavy loss in jobs and earnings.

On the other hand, Indian remittances had been hit by the current economic slowdown affecting US and EU countries.  Conditions there do not inspire hopes of any immediate improvement in the situation. With rising unemployment and insecurity, there is an undercurrent of tension against migrant workers.  In some countries, there is a distinct swing to the political right, as in Germany, or a shift to more stringent conditions to reduce the access of aspiring migrants, as in the UK. Germans recently protested a move by a firm to recruit some high-end Indian workers. In the US too, there is strong political pressure on most firms to abolish outsourcing of work in IT and other sectors.

In early 2010, nearly 40,000 Bangladeshis had to return from Libya, many of them stranded without funds, because of the EU-aided civil war there. There had been some drop in remittances to Bangladesh, causing widespread concern. However, the situation improved later and the country registered a remittance income of over $12 billion in 2011, an increase over the previous year, constituting 12 per cent of its GDP.

India emerged as the highest remittance earning country in 2011, with an inflow of $58 billion, followed by China at $57 billion. Next came Mexico and the Philippines. Quite apart from their relative isolation from the Arab spring developments, what helped India and Bangladesh was the growing importance of oil and energy sector worldwide, especially in the Gulf (GCC) countries, Russia and the new Central Asian nations (CAS). Indian and Bangladeshi migration continued to be strong. By 2011, Bangladesh migration increased by 31 per cent over 2010. As for India, 20 per cent of those who work abroad are settled in the gulf region, more than the size of combined Indian migration to the UK and the USA. From Russia, the inflow of remittance money increased primarily for the CAS countries.

The undeclared devaluation (weakening) of the Indian rupee and Bangladeshi taka relative to the US dollar also helped, in that non-resident South Asians felt an increased urge to send money home.

However, observers are now concerned over certain recent trends and moves developing within the GCC countries, planned and coordinated by Saudi Arabia. World Bank studies mention a new proposal for NITAQAT, a policy of indigenisation of employment, beginning with Saudi Arabia. Already Bangladesh is feeling the pinch, with SA authorities clamping down on fresh arrivals. Bangladeshis returning home also complain that there is considerable local unemployment among Saudis themselves at present. As the millennium began, nearly 70 per cent of Bangladeshi workers in the gulf region were Saudi-based, but at present, the figure is down to three per cent only!  Altogether, around 7,00,000 Bangladeshis are now working in this region, along with 33 lakh Indians and 17 lakh Pakistanis.  There is no guarantee that, while the beginning, has been made with Bangladeshis, Indians and Pakistanis would not be similarly targeted in the region, if only to maintain a semblance of equal opportunity for migrants.

In Saudi Arabia, all private sector firms would have to abide by strict rules governing recruitment of foreign workers or face penal action. In the SA private sector, migrant workers outnumber locals by a factor of six to one. Such trends in West Asia, coming in the wake of the tightening of the screws against migration in Germany and the UK in the EU region naturally worry Indian observers.

However, it can be pointed out that, earlier, such methods to put more locals in place of the hard working migrants in the Middle East had not proved effective enough. Locals in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere preferred to work in the relatively secure public sector units, free from competitive pressures. They were not keen to work in low paid menial jobs, nor interested in the hard work involved in construction, real estate or infrastructure development. Also, there were not too many locals manning the high-risk top-end jobs that went with economic or managerial expertise. Given this background, it remains to be seen what happens to the latest drive to indigenise the workforce. Bangladesh, in particular has been target of sanctions by recruiting countries. There are allegations of criminal and anti social behaviour from Bangladeshis in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Kuwait and Malaysia have occasionally banned Bangladeshi recruitment in the past, later relaxing restrictions, along with the Saudis, while Singapore has controlled their entry tightly. [IPA]
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