BRUNEI, a Southeast Asian country, has a strong economy, a high per capita income, rapid GDP growth, an excellent education and health system, and a high standard of living. Although small in size, the Muslim country is one of the richest in Asia, being a country that produces abundant natural gas and oil. In the 1970s and 80s, Brunei was one of the major markets for Bangladeshi manpower. The market began to shrink gradually from the 1990s onward. At present, there are about 25,000 Bangladeshi workers working there, but their work facilities, wages, and salary structure are still not as expected. Many employees have been working without pay for several months. Some even sleep on the streets without getting paid. But in order to earn a living, they are forced to stay there.
On October 15–17, the Sultan of Brunei visited Bangladesh for the first time. Several agreements and memorandums of understanding were signed between the two countries following bilateral meetings during the visit of the Sultan of Brunei. Bangladesh and Brunei have signed an agreement as well as three memorandums of understanding to expand mutual cooperation in areas such as direct air connectivity, manpower export, liquefied gas, and petroleum supply. Imports of liquefied gas and petroleum and the export of more manpower from Bangladesh have been given major importance in the MoU. The Sultan’s first visit to Bangladesh has marked the beginning of a new chapter in relations between the two countries.
Bangladesh always attaches importance to developing relations with Southeast Asian countries. Labour migration is the second-most important sector of Bangladesh’s economy. Excluding the two years of the Covid period, an average of more than 600,000 people from Bangladesh goes abroad for work every year. On paper, Bangladesh sends manpower to nearly a hundred countries, but basically, the labour market of Bangladesh is only in 17–18 countries, more specifically, Middle Eastern countries. Every year, Bangladesh earns about 20 billion dollars from remittances. The majority of the total manpower is unskilled. If they had been trained for specific jobs and technical jobs, more remittances would have come to Bangladesh.
Even though manpower export fell during the Covid pandemic, the country saw a sharp increase in remittances as most migrants used official channels to send their money home. The rate of remittances has dropped to its lowest level in several months this year, raising concerns about the economy. That is why there is no other way but to explore more labour markets abroad, increase diplomatic activity to send workers and increase foreign employment.
The state visit of the Sultan of Brunei to Bangladesh is a step forward in the expansion of new markets. The Sultan of Brunei’s visit to Bangladesh during the Covid crisis and the Russia-Ukraine war is also very significant. Since Brunei is generally not interested in investing in other countries and they attract foreigners by investing in their own country, they also need more Bangladeshi workers in their country. Therefore, exporting more labourers to their market can be a timely decision. At the same time, the diplomatic activities of the two countries can be useful in ensuring the labour rights of those who are working there at the moment. Therefore, the Sultan of Brunei has a positive attitude towards the recruitment of labour; at the same time, he expressed enthusiasm for importing fish and meat from Bangladesh.
Previously, Brunei’s market was male-centric. We also need to think about whether there is or can be an area for women’s migration and bring it up in bilateral discussions. Once upon a time, many professional workers used to go to work in Brunei. Doctors, engineers, and skilled labour were valued there. Bangladeshi employees primarily worked in the accounting and management departments in that country. This time also, we have to aim to open the market for skilled manpower. About 95 per cent of their country’s total income comes from petroleum and liquefied gas exports. In that sense, there are no garment or industrial factories in Brunei. As a result, the workers who are working in that country are mainly engaged in various service organisations, including gas extraction and supply and car repair.
There is no research in Bangladesh about the labour market and what kind of opportunity can be created in countries where there is an excess of Bangladeshi workers. Therefore, Bangladesh needs to increase research on their market to send more workers to Brunei’s labour market. There needs to be an assessment of staffing needs in some areas. It will not stop at just evaluating; accordingly, it is also important to develop skilled manpower through training in the technical training centres of the government. In this case, work can be done through a public-private partnership. Apprentices and seniors should be trained as soon as possible.
Bangladesh-Brunei relations have not only created new opportunities for labour migrants; since the Sultan of Brunei has expressed interest in importing fish and meat from this country, there is a possibility of establishing commercial relations. Those involved in domestic animal husbandry and meat export will also benefit. They can find new export markets. Non-governmental organisations and private sector entrepreneurs can link labour migration with the export of non-food products. The ministries of foreign affairs, expatriate welfare and foreign employment and commerce can start working together to strengthen immigration and trade relations. Brunei imports essential medicines from other countries. Since the pharmaceutical industry of Bangladesh is quite developed and exports medicines to many countries, Bangladesh can easily capture the market of Brunei if it wants.
However, our past experience says that even though the markets of different countries are opened up through the highest level of negotiations, a syndicate develops in that country and in Bangladesh within a short period of time. Such syndicates exploit migration seekers at home and abroad. In some cases, the authorities of the destination countries prohibit labour migration from Bangladesh due to widespread irregularities in the migration process. The government, therefore, must also address these issues.
Dr Rakib Al Hasan is a physician, author, activist and youth leader.