Social and economic context of migration

Bangladesh is a developing country with a population estimated to be about 148.7 million in 2010 (World Bank 2011) and a labour force of about 53.7 million people (BBS 2009).

Approximately 43.6 per cent of the labour force is employed in the agriculture sector (BBS 2009), with rice being the single most important product. As a result, most farmers are not likely to be fully employed throughout the year and require either higher wages for the agricultural work to carry them through the year, or additional non-farm income. This combined with the country’s historical circumstances, geographic location and ecology has made Bangladesh a major resource of low-cost labour (Rahman 2000).

There are no official estimates of unemployment and underemployment2 in Bangladesh, but some sources have suggested that about 5.0 per cent of the labour force is unemployed and 28.7 per cent is underemployed (BBS 2009). Outmigration has consequently helped alleviate the country’s surplus of workers.

Based on estimates, about 9 per cent of the country’s labour force, or 6.9 million Bangladeshis, are working abroad (IOM 2010) and the remittances from overseas migrants contribute to almost 11 per cent of GDP (World Bank 2010).

During the 2008 global financial crisis, the country’s economic growth remained resilient due in part to remittances. Notably, remittance figures have continued to remain strong and steady even though overseas employment of Bangladeshis fell by about 45 per cent in 2009 from the previous year (BMET 2011).

Labour force participation of Bangladeshi women is estimated to be about 31.5 per cent, a relatively high rate in Asia, but their representation among Bangladeshis in the international labour market in percentage terms is among the lowest in the region (BBS 2009). The relatively low representation is the result of a comprehensive ban imposed on women migration by the Government of Bangladesh in 1997 in response to widespread reports of physical and sexual abuse of domestic workers in some of the destination countries, principally in the region comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)3. This ban, however, proved to be counterproductive, as women continued to migrate overseas by using unofficial channels. Although the Government lifted the ban in 2004, a number of conditions still remain that make it difficult for women to receive authorization to work abroad. The lifting of the ban, however, has raised the level of women’s participation in the overseas employment sector over the last decade, albeit it is still low. Currently, women migrants constitute approximately 7 per cent of the total number of labour migrants going abroad for work through official channels (BMET 2011). Various studies argue however, that the figure is not representative of the actual number, as a large number of women continue to migrate through irregular channels due to the restrictions imposed on them on migrating through official channels.


2 The condition in which people in a labour force are employed at less than full-time or regular jobs or at jobs inadequate with respect to their training or economic needs.

3 The member States of the GCC are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.