International migration is a pivotal aspect of Bangladeshi society and has a significant impact on its social and economic development. Thus, the Government has prioritized the establishment of normative and institutional frameworks to regulate and govern labor migration, including recruitment processes. Yet the recruitment system mainly remains informal, and many flaws still exist that affect the rights and welfare of migrant workers and their families. Some promising learnings from the Strengthened and Informative Migration Systems (SIMS) project provide guidance on how to foster necessary systemic change.

Migration is central to Bangladesh’s socio-economic development, and it has long been an important livelihood strategy for men and women migrants and their families. International migration provides an opportunity for Bangladeshi citizens to seek work they cannot find at home. In 2023, 1,305,453 Bangladeshis migrated for overseas employment – the most ever in the history of the country. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, in particular Saudi Arabia, are the top destinations.

According to an extensive study assessing the impact of migration on poverty and local development in Bangladesh, remittances sent by migrants to their families at home play a strong role in local economic development. This correlates with a substantial reduction in poverty levels when compared with non-migrant households and creates employment for non-migrants in local communities where the remittances are invested. Migration is a key driver for economic growth and employment, contributing to 6.2% of the GDP and indirectly creating and sustaining millions of households in the country.

Ensuring the rights and protection of Bangladeshi populations

Women and men migrants face a myriad of risks and challenges at both their country of origin and destination. At the pre-departure stage, these problems include deception about the nature and conditions of work, fraud (e.g., with their visa or employment contract), a lack of awareness on safe migration practices and the process for migration, debt bondage and exorbitant migration costs, including high fees charged by recruiters. While overseas, migrant workers may face low wages, exploitation and abuse, violence and insufficient services to protect their rights. Women migrants are particularly vulnerable and may face sexual and gender-based violence.

Reasons behind these abuses and exploitation are multi-faceted, with several of them being related to the pre-departure process and the recruitment industry. The latter is still mainly informal; it’s characterized by fraudulent and abusive practices and is facilitated by a complex network that often relies heavily on informal intermediaries and unauthorized sub-agents – so-called “dalals” – to recruit workers from communities all over the country. Despite a clear willingness by Bangladesh to better regulate this sector through the adoption of reforms in the migration laws and policies over time, there are still many gaps in the government’s response to these challenges. These gaps include:

  • Ineffective public services for aspiring migrants (e.g., the services are not well known by migrants, complex procedures, insufficient logistics facilities, and low quality)
  • Sparsely regulated recruitment costs for migrants
  • Insufficient access to justice and protection services (e.g., weak implementation structures, overburdened systems, hardly accessible grievance mechanisms, and a lack of awareness by justice seekers)

This situation allows the exploitative informal system to continue to undermine the needs and entitlements of migrants and their families left behind. These unsafe migration practices often render migrants susceptible to human trafficking, forced labor and modern slavery.

Strengthening migrant information systems and services

In this context, in collaboration with national organizations including RMMRUBNWLAOKUP and Prottyashi, Helvetas has been implementing the SIMS project, which is funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. Since 2019 the project has worked to increase the benefits related to labor migration and better protect migrants through safer migration practices, effective use of remittances, and strengthened service delivery from both public and private actors.

SIMS has been pursuing these changes through a human rights-based approach, which aims on one side, to strengthen both public and private sector duty-bearers to provide better services to migrant workers. On the other side, SIMS empowers the rights-holders, (i.e., the migrant workers and their families) to know and claim their rights. In combination with this, SIMS has been following a systemic approach that does not duplicate, but rather strengthens the capacity of public and private actors to ensure improved services for prospective migrant workers and their families.

During the first phase of the project, which has now run for almost five years, the focus has been on addressing some of the key issues in the pre-decision and pre-departure stage of the migration cycle. Next, SIMS will build on initial achievements and learnings by both upscaling and streamlining some proven approaches, as well as fostering the sustainability and the institutionalization of the project interventions.

Learnings and promising practices

After the first five years of the project, several promising practices emerged that will be used to guide the strategy of SIMS’ next activities. Below are four essential learnings that may inspire new interventions in the area of safe labor migration in Bangladesh, and beyond:

1. Understanding and targeting behavior change in awareness-raising activities is essential. Some behavior change of aspirant migrant workers was observed thanks to the pre-decision-making orientation (two-days training, in addition to the mandatory three-day pre-departure training organized by the government) delivered by the project. However, the level of behavioral change is unclear since there is still a significant number of graduates not following the safe migration behaviors promoted as part of this training. This observation is valid for similar awareness raising activities since, more globally, after many years of implementation of numerous labor migration interventions, only few effects have been demonstrated in terms of behavior change. Indeed, there are still large gaps in the understanding of what shapes migration decision-making. SIMS commissioned RANAS, a Swiss expert entity for behavior change, to study four key behaviors and provide recommendations on how these behaviors can be further reinforced. Based on the RANAS study findings, SIMS will aim to develop more targeted interventions and better understand barriers and enablers related to the behavioral perspective. Improved messaging targeting behavior change of migrants will be adopted in the awareness delivery methodology for future interventions

2. Local authorities and communities have a key role to play in delivering safe migration information. The approaches mentioned above have started to bear fruit. Local authorities (e.g., Union Parishads, which are the smallest rural administrative and local government unit in Bangladesh) and communities (e.g., migrant forums) have increasingly been playing an important role in raising awareness on safe migration. There has been evidence of greater capacities of the Union Parishads (UPs) to understand the challenges migrants face and provide relevant information on safe migration, including the allocation of dedicated budgets for awareness-raising activities. Forty UPs established a migration help desk for safe migration information dissemination in their office premises. Some UPs also uploaded migration-related awareness information on their official webpages. Increased ownership and capacities of local actors appear as a successful intervention to engage with system actors to work toward systemic changes and foster the sustainability of the action beyond the project duration.

3. Alternative dispute resolution mechanisms are a relevant complement to formal mechanisms. Against a background of an overburdened judiciary system with limited resources, the project has been contributing to the establishment of Grievance Management Committees (GMCs) and to the integration of the UP chairman as GMC chair. The GMC is an accessible and locally trusted model of resolving disputes related to migrant workers through mediation. It works with a combination of elected representatives at the union level and representatives of community leaders, including returned migrants. It is designed to offer an expeditious voluntary solution to workers’ migration-related grievances without resorting to the formal court mechanism. This promising model may also make a contribution in reducing the backlog of cases in the court system and ensuring greater access to justice, according to a recent scoping study. The SIMS project is focusing on institutionalizing this mechanism.

4. Decentralization of the arbitration system might provide better access to justice. A centralized mechanism to address grievances exists (at the Bureau of Manpower, Employment, and Training level) but it is not easily accessible for justice seekers and tends to be overburdened. The project has been engaging with the Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment through advocacy and technical assistance. This collaboration has initiated the piloting of the decentralization of the arbitration system of the government in project areas. It has significantly enhanced the accessibility of the grievance redressal mechanism for aggrieved migrants and their families, offering them support in their local district — a contrast to the previous situation of traveling to the Bureau office in Dhaka for complaint lodging and hearings. The SIMS project aims to capitalize on this initiative and replicate it new areas of the country.

The labor migration sector in Bangladesh continues to face formidable challenges and, at the same time, brings a tremendous contribution to the socio-economic development of the country. The experience of the project illustrates the importance of developing interventions that are people- and migrant-centered, while targeting system actors as driving forces of change.

About the Authors

Md. Abul Basar is the Project Director for SIMS at Helvetas Bangladesh.
Régis Blanc is Helvetas’ Senior Advisor for Migration at Helvetas Head office in Switzerland.

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