Governance of labour migration

Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have established similar systems and structures for the governance of labour migration to GCC countries as well as to destinations in South-East Asia.

There is an increasing trend towards more regulation of migration, usually with the aim to protect migrants. However, countries of origin cannot necessarily control outflows and, even if they could, the result could be a top-down process, which does not adequately take into account the interests of social partners, such as unions and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as migrants. For example, governments committed to promoting foreign employment and protecting migrant workers may impede the freedom of movement of women or low-skilled migrants in ways that aggravate the vulnerability and abuse of these workers.

Bhutan and Maldives are primarily countries of destination, while the Islamic Republic of Iran and Turkey are destination, transit, and origin countries. The Islamic Republic of Iran has hosted more than a million Afghan refugees, many of whom were later granted visas to work in the country, while many Iranians have left the country for employment and other purposes. During the 1960s and 1970s, Turkish labour migration was organized through bilateral agreements with countries in the European Union, especially Germany.

Migration from Afghanistan has been mainly refugees to neighbouring countries, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan, where they have been allowed to work. Only recently, the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled (MOLSAMD) adopted a policy to promote labour migration of Afghan workers abroad, to such locations as GCC countries.


In 2011, up to six million Afghans were estimated to be living abroad (Arif and Shujaat forthcoming), despite the return of almost four million from neighbouring countries, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan, between 2002 and 2006 (Margesson 2007). Many of those still abroad are professionals and skilled workers, resulting in the recruitment of replacement workers. The Government of Afghanistan introduced a “work permit system” administered by the Department of Foreign Residents Employment within the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled (MOLSAMD). An inter-ministerial committee was also established to approve the employment of needed foreign workers. By the end of 2008, it was reported that some 14,724 foreign nationals from 82 countries had been issued work permits.3

A recent MOLSAMD report notes that a ‘labour dispatch protocol’ had been signed with the Government of Qatar, and that negotiations with the Governments of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, are underway for bilateral agreements to cover the employment of Afghans in these countries. MOLSAMD has created a branch and established regulations to govern the activities of private employment agencies (overseas employment promoters) to streamline the sending of Afghan workers abroad (Koepke 2011, UNHCR 2009).

According to one report, formalizing labour migration to the Islamic Republic of Iran has been difficult because it has become more expensive for Afghan workers to obtain work permits. It costs twice as much to enter the Islamic Republic of Iran legally than through smugglers (Koepke 2011).


Labour migration from Bangladesh is regulated under the Emigration Ordinance of 1982, which requires migrant workers to have valid contracts and work visas before leaving to fill overseas jobs. Section 8.1 allows the government to prohibit the out-migration of persons with particular skills “in the public interest,” and specifies that Bangladeshis leaving the country can be fined up to 5,000 Bangladeshi taka (TK) ($65) or imprisoned up to a year. Section 10 authorizes the government to license recruiters and to withdraw recruitment licences for violations of recruitment regulations, such as overcharging migrants (Section 23).4

Three major agencies deal with the 3 R’s, namely recruitment, remittances and returns:

  • The umbrella Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment;
  • the regulatory Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET);
  • the government employment agency, Bangladesh Overseas Employment and Services.

The Bangladesh Overseas Employment Policy, adopted in October 2006, promotes the out-migration of Bangladeshis and aims to protect them while abroad. The Wage Earners’ Welfare Fund was created in 1990 and, under regulations set in December 2002, is supported by fees from migrants (an initial assessment of 1,000 Bangladeshi taka (TK) ($15), interest on the bonds posted by recruiters and a 10 per cent surcharge on fees charged by Bangladeshi missions abroad for passports and other services. The Fund supports desks staffed by BMET at Zia International Airport, which check and assist migrants leaving and returning to Bangladesh. It also pays for legal assistance given to overseas migrants and the return of remains of migrants who die abroad as well as provides support to the families of deceased migrants in Bangladesh and to returning migrants who were not paid by their foreign employers. The Fund is administered by a board consisting of Ministers of various government agencies and the recruiters’ association Bangladeshi Association of International Recruiting Agencies (BAIRA).

BMET, set up in 1976 under the Ministry of Labor, has 17 offices throughout the country. It is tasked with organizing employment promotion and skills training, promoting the employment of Bangladeshis abroad and encouraging overseas migrants to send remittances home. It also provides employment counseling to migrants, regulates private recruiters and conducts research on migration and development. Before leaving Bangladesh, migrants must first register their employment contracts with BMET. This procedure, which usually is carried out with assistance from recruiters, is one of the final steps before departure. In 2009, BMET reported that some three million Bangladeshis have been registered since the registration process began in June 2004. Registered job seekers receive a BMET-issued photo ID that includes personal information.

The Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment (MEWOE), established on 20 December 2001 following advocacy from NGOs, is tasked with formulating overseas employment policy and overseeing the operations of the Wage Earners’ Welfare Fund and shares responsibility with the Ministry of Labor over the supervision of recruitment and licensing of private recruiters, and the provision of services to migrants through labour attachés in Bangladeshi missions abroad. MEWOE encourages the Bangladeshi diaspora to invest in projects in their home communities and facilitates expatriate investments in Bangladesh. Since 2008, Bangladeshis abroad who remit foreign currency to Bangladesh have “special citizens’ privileges”.


The Labour and Employment Act in 2007 amended the rules and regulations for the recruitment of foreign workers earlier prescribed in the 1994 Chathrim5 for wage rates, recruitment agencies and workmen’s compensation. The 2007 law empowered the Government to set a ceiling on the number of foreign workers (30,000 in 2009) and prescribed a formula6 for how many foreign workers an enterprise may employ. The variables include whether the employer wants foreign workers for a government project, for the construction of an institution such as schools or commercial buildings or hotels, or for personal residential construction (a maximum 12 migrants in urban areas and five in rural areas). Foreign workers with skills not available locally may be admitted, but their duration of employment is limited to six months. Some 22 occupations are closed to foreign workers, including, among others, computer operators, accountants, travel guides, clerks and plumbers.


Labour migration from India is governed by the Emigration Act of 1983, which regulates Indian-based recruiters and established the protectors of emigrants (POE) offices. Intending migrants are required to obtain emigration clearance from one the 13 POE offices throughout the country. However, 13 categories of persons are exempt from this requirement, including those with 10 or more years of schooling. Some researchers conclude that the POE process introduces another level of fees that migrants must pay while adding few protections (Rajan and others 2008).

India issues two types of passports— those that specify that the holder must receive an emigration check (ECR) by the POE and those that do not require the holder to obtain an emigration check (ENCR). Holders of ECR passports can nonetheless leave without a POE check for most countries, but need POE permission to travel to 17 countries, including GCC countries, Libya and Malaysia.

The Government of India acknowledges that its regulatory system may not fully protect migrant workers (Rajan and others 2008). As in other countries of origin, some Indian recruiters specialize in so-called ‘free visas’, often purchased from citizens in GCC countries. Migrants with ‘free visas’ may be employed by several employers, with varying wages and working conditions. NGOs report that some Indian migrants paid fees for work contracts that turned out to be different than what they expected, or received contracts that were not for genuine jobs.

The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA), created in 2004, negotiates memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with major destinations of Indian migrants, including one with the United Arab Emirates signed in 2006. It also negotiates social security agreements, so far primarily with European countries, that can exempt Indian migrants from contributing to pension systems abroad or help them to obtain a refund of their contributions when they depart after a period of employment abroad. The MOIA in 2008 established Overseas Workers Resource Centers to help Indian migrants abroad and their families at home through a toll-free number. The MOIA also oversees the Indian Community Welfare Fund (ICWF). From its 42 Indian missions abroad, migrants can obtain emergency housing and medical services, receive legal help or travel home, and have remains returned to India in case of death abroad.7

Islamic Republic of Iran

The 1990 Labor Law mandated the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs “to issue, extend, and renew work permits to the refugees, subject to the written agreements of the ministries of interior and foreign affairs”. The first work permits for refugees were issued in late 2008, and during that time 300,000 were granted (Koepke 2011). In July 2010, the Bureau of Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs (BAFIA), which is under the Ministry of Interior, proposed a guardianship concept that would allow private recruitment companies to organize the entry and stay of foreigners in the Islamic Republic of Iran. At the same time the Government announced that unauthorized foreigners could work legally by registering, which prompted 1.5 million Afghans to register between 24 July and 26 August 2010 (Koepke 2011).


A detailed Foreign Employment Act was enacted in October 2007, followed by regulations in 2008 that, among other things, allows for the granting of one-year renewable licences to recruiting agencies and established the Department of Foreign Employment to administer the law. Chapter 9 of the Foreign Employment Act makes recruiters liable for penalties of four to seven years imprisonment for making false promises to Nepalese going abroad or sending them abroad without proper documents. Aggrieved migrants can file complaints with the Foreign Employment Tribunal in Kathmandu, the location of the government migration agencies and most of the recruiters. The Foreign Employment Act calls for the establishment of a migrant workers welfare fund, labour desks at Nepalese airports to check the contracts of migrants leaving and labour attachés abroad to assist Nepalese migrants in countries with at least 5,000 migrants (Nepal has posted labour attachés for migrants in Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates).

The Foreign Employment Act included many safe migration provisions to protect women and was supported in its development by UNIFEM (now UN Women). Some recruiters expressed the fear that the strong provisions of the Act could make it more difficult to lawfully send Nepalese women abroad.

In 2009, the Government of Nepal had MOUs with Governments of four destination countries, namely Bahrain, Qatar, the Republic of Korea and the United Arab Emirates. Of these, Nepalese migrants are most eager to work in the Republic of Korea under the Employment Permit System, where they earn $1,000 a month or more working in agriculture, fisheries, construction, small-scale manufacturing and some services. In order to be considered for jobs in the Republic of Korea, Nepalese must pass a basic test of proficiency in Korean, which helps to explain the proliferation of Korean language schools in Nepal. The number of Nepalese who study Korean and take the Korean language test far exceeds the number of those selected to work in the Republic of Korea. For example, over 36,000 Nepalese took the Korean language test in August 2010, and 4,200 passed, but employers in the Republic of Korea selected only about 2,700 Nepalese to work in the country.8 Nepal has emerged from an internal conflict situation and policy makers view overseas employment as a safety valve for employment, especially for youth, and a source of foreign exchange. National development plans and ILO Decent Work Country Programmes (developed by the Ministry of Labour and social partners) have accorded priority to labour migration.


Pakistan was one of the first Asian countries to encourage workers to go abroad. The country’s Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment (BEOE) was set up in 1970 to coordinate offices previously responsible for the protection of emigrants and the welfare of seamen. The Bureau promotes safe and regular migration through the regional offices of the Protector of Emigrants.9 The Emigration Ordinance of 1979 established the procedures for:

  • registration of migrants;
  • appointment and supervision of Community Welfare ;
  • training, orientation and counseling for awareness of migrant workers;
  • application for and licensing of recruitment agencies;
  • appointment of sub-agents by recruiting agents;
  • recruiting agent’s code of conduct;
  • imposing a penalty for contravention of rules.

Pakistan also established a welfare fund and authorized the creation of a corps of community welfare attachés in countries with large numbers of Pakistani workers. All migrants must contribute to the welfare fund, which is managed by the Overseas Pakistanis Foundation. Since 1979, the fund has financed the development of migrant housing projects in seven cities, disaster relief activities and the provision of health care to schools and colleges in all provinces; it also provides funds to assist migrants returning with a disability. Community Welfare Attachés are posted in 16 countries, including, among others, Bahrain, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Oman, Qatar, the Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka established the Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare in 2007, abolished it for approximately six months in 2010, and then re-established it in November 2010. Wickramasekara (2011, p. 231) notes that the Government of Sri Lanka as well as a number of other Governments of South Asian countries emphasize a desire for “safe and orderly migration”, that is, the absence of smuggling and trafficking and migration under government-set rules.

In 2008, the Government of Sri Lanka developed a migration policy with three major elements: better governance and regulation of migration; more effective protection of migrant workers; and enhanced development impacts of migration and remittances in Sri Lanka. Tripartite steering groups,10 chaired by the Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare, developed recommendations in changes in governance, protection, and development policies, which were incorporated into the National Labour Migration Policy for Sri Lanka11 and accepted by the Government in April 2009.12

The National Policy calls for migration to be mainstreamed into the country’s development policy, encouraging more skilled workers to migrate to new destinations and providing better English-language training, and envisions improved training institutions that issue certificates for skills recognized in foreign labour markets. It also requests for a revised code of conduct for recruitment agencies and a model employment contract for migrant workers be drafted.

Many Sri Lankan women going abroad to work are from rural areas and their migration experience, which usually involves working as a domestic helper, is often their first wage work. The Government of Sri Lanka aims to reduce the share of female domestic workers among Sri Lankan migrants from 50 to 25 per cent and to better protect Sri Lankan workers abroad. Departing migrants receive booklets in Sinhalese or Tamil with information on the destination countries and labour attaché or welfare officer contact information. All migrant workers are required to complete a pre-departure orientation of 12 days before heading to most of the GCC countries and 30 days for Singapore. Since 2009, departing female domestic workers must also participate in an 18-day pre-departure English and literacy programme.


3 See

4 See Immigration Ordinance, 1982 Ordinance Nº. XXIX of 1982.

5 Government Act.

6 According to the formula the number allowed varies depending on the labour cost of the project, duration and the wage rate.

7 For more details see

8 See

9 The Offices of Protector of Emigrants are located in the Pakistani cities Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Quetta, Batkhela and Multan.

10 Tripartite steering groups consist of government officials and representatives from workers’ associations, such as trade unions and employers.

11 See

12 The governance part of the National Policy outlines the institutional structure to manage labour migration and the legislative and regulatory framework. The protection part covers pre-departure, employment abroad, and return and re-integration. The development section outlines ways in which remittances and the return of skills can accelerate development.