A couple of vital data --- the number of foreign workers in Bangladesh and the amount of money they remit to their home countries annually --- continues to elude the relevant policymakers.
Data produced so far by one or two sectors that employ substantial number of foreign nationals are rather confusing. Those data are nowhere near the ones maintained by the relevant government agencies.
A case in point is the information gathered by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) on the foreign workers in the garment industry.
The new BGMEA board sent letters to their affiliate organisations to gather data on their respective foreign workers, if there is any, and send that to the Association.
The response, however, has been poor. So far 52 out of 4,560 affiliate member factories have sent data on their foreign workers. The number stands at only 177 and half of them are Indians and a quarter Sri Lankans.
It is widely believed that the number of foreign workers in the apparel sector would be far bigger as each of the big units does employ a good number of workers who receive handsome pay and allowances at the end of the month.
The BGMEA must gather detailed information on foreign workers since the data now available with it appear to be only partial and do not match the official ones.
The Home Minister, reportedly, told the parliament early last year that more than 85,000 foreign workers are employed in Bangladesh and half of them are Indians. Naturally, the Home Minister had mentioned the number of workers who have legal documents. But there could be many more illegal workers.
According to the Pew Research Center, a non-partisan American fact tank, foreign workers in Bangladesh remit more than US$2.0 billion every year. Unconfirmed sources, however, estimate the remittance value at over US$ 5.0 billion a year. This particular estimate might have taken into account the money remitted using the routes beyond the official ones. Both legal and illegal foreign workers could be involved in such transactions.
One cannot be certain about the information given by the Home Minister in parliament about foreign workers. He must have quoted the number of workers who had entered the country with legal documents.
It is hard to deny the necessity of employing a certain number of skilled foreign workers, particularly in technical areas. Such employment may also be necessary for a limited period to help grow local expertise.
Since the apparel sector employs the most number of foreign workers, it is necessary to concentrate more on it. The industry people do need to focus on eliminating the dependence on foreign workers gradually. Besides, the local industries and businesses should have no reason to hire foreign management personnel in particular as the same variety is being produced in sufficient numbers domestically. There could be some difference in attitude and service quality between the two. But that issue could be resolved with the help of the management of local universities.
Then again, one of the major weaknesses of the Bangladesh garment industry has been its failure to produce and export high-end garment products. The units that have been trying to diversify are required to remain largely dependent on foreign workers for the job. It should not be very difficult for the local workers to acquire the skill of producing upscale garment products since this is not any rocket science. Imparting proper training to the local workers would surely help many local RMG units to start producing theses goods.
But workers with required skill would, naturally, demand higher wages. Are the RMG owners ready to pay higher wages? They should be.
It is really a pity that local RMG industry despite being in the trade for more than four decades has remained stuck in the production of T- shirts, denim pants, shirts, sweaters, caps etc. These products do usually fetch lower volume of export revenue.
Moreover, the policymakers and the businesses would have to make a serious assessment of the manpower requirements in domestic industries and services sector. It would also be necessary to know about the facilities available locally to meet that requirement. Any lacking detected in this particular area needs to be removed through joint efforts.
The presence of some foreign workers and experts in certain areas is inevitable. But the local workers having training in specific trades can certainly replace many foreign workers who have been remitting home a sizeable amount every year.
What, however, remains a problem here is that all concerned do know the problem, but few of them feel the urge of doing the needful to overcome it. The issue of foreign workers in Bangladesh is not a very disturbing one right at this moment, but it deserves attention of the people who matter. For Bangladesh cannot afford wastage of its hard-earned foreign exchange.