Ahmad and the unskilled labour market

Published : 28 May 2011, 04:11 PM
Updated : 28 May 2011, 04:11 PM

I was returning to Washington from a whirlwind trip to Bangladesh. When I boarded the plane in Dhaka, I found myself sitting next to Ahmad, a 23-year lad from a little village called Nalakhala in Faridpur. He came to Dhaka a few days ago for his trip and stayed with his sister in Kalyanpur, where his brother-in-law is an imam of a local mosque. Shy-looking and petit, Ahmad was talking to his mother over the cellphone. I listened intently. His mother, I could imagine, was distraught that her young son was embarking on a perilous, uncertain journey across the Arab Sea. "Don't cry, ma," Ahmad comforted his mother "say prayers five times a day and pray for me every time." It was a typically melancholic, pre-departure mother-son dialogue that went on until the plane proceeded to the taxiway.

"Where are you heading?" I asked as I helped Ahmad buckle up.

"Muscat (Oman)," he said nervously.

As it turns out, his adam bepari (manpower merchant) assured him that it was to be a one-way ticket to utopia where he would earn money aplenty. The down payment for this utopia was a hefty taka 3 lakh.

"What will you be doing in Muscat?" I inquired.

"I don't know. My cousin is there. Once I get there he will tell me."

"Did you receive any job training before this trip?"


"Did you go to school?"

"I dropped out of school when I was in class five," Ahmad said.

"Do you have any skills?"

"I have been working in a tailor shop."

"Do you know how far Muscat is from Bangladesh?"

"No. I heard it's really far."

"How much do you think you will earn a month in Muscat?"

"I don't know. My cousin will tell me."

"Would you know how to change plane in Doha?"

"No. Bhai, would you help me? This is my first ever journey by myself."

I asked for his boarding pass and checked it and assured him that I'd take him to his departure gate before I went to mine. I have to confess that I took an anthropological interest in Ahmad who, to me, represented a worryingly typical story of unskilled labour migration from Bangladesh.

What emerged through the conversation was the conflicting yet admirable image of a young man: nervous but resolute about his future; naïve but extraordinarily nonchalant about the uncertain life ahead; uneducated but eager to learn. Ahmad was clueless about the geography of his destination country. He seemed to have no knowledge of its society. He had no idea what it meant to be called "sir" by the polite flight attendant. He appeared fascinated by the fleeting clouds as he intensely gazed through the airplane window.

At the risk of exhibiting a bourgeois sense of superiority, I found Ahmad's story and his pursuit of good life fascinating. I tried to imagine how he is going to fit in or cope with the exploitative unskilled labour market in an alien country. With no language skills, no marketable skills, and no sense of his legal rights, what is the nature of his vulnerability in a foreign land? If he were my younger brother, would I have let him go on with this brutally Darwinist journey of the survival of the fittest? I also tried to discern how Ahmad is going to remake the economic landscape of his motherland.

The migrant labour market has robustly contributed to the economy of Bangladesh through remittances of foreign exchange. By exporting manpower to developed destinations, Bangladesh over the past three decades or so has emerged as a key player in the migrant labour market. In fact, Bangladesh accounts for about three per cent of the global remittance income. Nearly five million Bangladeshis work abroad. Every year over a quarter million Bangladeshis join the migrant labour force in foreign lands. The country receives an annual remittance amount of over US $5 billion through official channels and approximately US $4 billion through unofficial channels. There have been studies to formulate strategies to raise Bangladesh's annual remittance income to US $30 billion a year by 2015.

No doubt Ahmad will make a contribution to this US $30 billion dream in coming years. Yet official policies treat the ilk of Ahmad merely like cogs in the abstractive wheel of economic development. The dehumanisation of unskilled human resources begins from the airport (and the offices of manpower agencies). The immigration officials contemptuously corral them to the airplane gate like cattle. Abusive languages are the norm. Fellow passengers routinely poke fun at their alleged lack of personal hygiene and etiquettes, and laugh at their eagerness to retrieve their personal belongings as soon as the plane touches the ground. They happily take the side of the rude flight attendant when she berates the migrant worker for the flimsiest of reasons. Passengers bound for America and Europe abhor the Bangladesh-Middle East segment because uncouth labourers in the airplane spoil their superior self-image.

If you look around a bit prior to your next flight, you will see how Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka provides ample moments of social schadenfreude (pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others), in which the migrant workers find their basic dignity diminished. The country loves the sweet money they send home, but it hardly treats them with respect. Our economic policy wonks and political leadership have traditionally milked unskilled migrant workers for the country's economic growth, yet they have persistently trampled on the workers' social visibility.

This dehumanising culture must change.

But expecting superior moral attitudes from airport officials, political leaders, policymakers, and fellow passengers toward migrant workers seems both unrealistic and unachievable in the near future. Instead, I propose empowering unskilled migrant workers with some basic knowledge and survival skills.

Before receiving visas for unskilled labourers, manpower agencies should be held accountable for sending them to a two-week, basic survival emersion programme (not job training which is a different story), organised by a third party to avoid the conflict of interest. This mandatory certificate programme should teach migrant labourers the key issues of human rights; basic geography and climate of the destination country; rudimentary language skills including common greetings; airport navigation and airplane etiquettes including lavatory usage; and basic banking (so that they are not exploited by the predatory apparatuses of international remittance).

Many would argue that this is over ambitious a programme and would slow down the manpower supply line. On the contrary. It would bring efficiency to the supply line, while empowering the workers with common knowledge necessary to survive in a cutthroat labour market. It will make them less vulnerable at the hands of their employers.

In five hours between Dhaka and Doha, I shared with Ahmad as much as I knew and he seemed eager and quick to learn. The first thing I told him was that he had some basic rights that should not be taken away from him under any circumstances. His work must be compensated reasonably. He understood that the airport officials had no right to mistreat him just because he was unskilled. He almost didn't eat his chicken and frittata in the airplane because he was too intimidated by the need to use a fork and knife. But he quickly learned how to use them. He didn't know that there were toilets in the airplane, so he refrained from drinking water. But soon he grasped the basics of an airplane's interior organisation.

The manpower agency that procured a visa for Ahmad to work in Oman should have already prepared him to undertake his job with dignity and a sense of self-worth.

I needed to go to gate 15 in Doha to catch my next plane, Ahmad gate 10. He was struggling with the idea of a departure gate. We walked to gate 10 first. When, as I was about to say goodbye, he shook my hand and said, "bhai, onek upakar korlen" (you helped me a lot), I reckoned that Ahmad taught me a more enlightened lesson in human dignity and courage than what I could merely tell him about airports and airplanes.


Dr. Adnan Morshed teaches in Washington, DC.