TRANSLOCAL LIVELIHOODS AND LABOUR MIGRATION
SYSTEMS IN BANGLADESH
Simon Peth and Serge Birtel
SUMMARY FOR POLICY MAKERS
Multiple insecurities represent an integral part of the daily life in Bangladesh. Re-
cently, much effort has been put into the understanding of the nexus between cli-
mate change and migration. The climate change discourse that is in full swing in
Bangladesh has the potential to overemphasize the environment as a driver of mi-
gration. This study scrutinizes the mere reduction of migration decisions to cli-
mate change and points towards the danger of simplifying migration decisions,
which are manifold and complex from their character.
To understand labour migration in Bangladesh, it is necessary to overcome di-
gration studies, such as the translocality paradigm enable us to capture the com-
question the sufficiency of merely place-based studies and the predominant sin-
gle-sited research design which has been increasingly criticized in recent years.
The paper presents empirical evidence from a multi-sited study conducted in
Bangladesh. Fieldwork was conducted both in regions of origin as well as regions
of destination. The Kurigram district is one of the poorest districts in Bangladesh
and the population faces both seasonal and chronic food insecurity as well as nat-
ural hazards, including riverbank erosion and severe floods. At the same time,
several migration systems have evolved in the last decades, which facilitate mi-
gration driven by seasonal labour markets and migration decisions made in the
context of food and livelihood insecurity. The case study shows that it is neces-
sary to look beyond the drivers of migration for the understanding of complex
migration processes. The question whether to move to the city or to other rural
places is much less important rather than the where an opportunity for work is
available and accessible. The direction of migration flows thus depends on differ-
ent factors, such as existing social networks between pioneer migrants and poten-
tial employers and the specific conditions at the destination (e.g. the demand for
labour, salaries, working conditions).
Peth, S. & S. Birtel (2014): Translocal Livelihoods and Labor Migration in Bangladesh:
Migration Decisions in the context of multiple insecurities and a changing environment.
In: Mallick, B. & B. Etzold (Ed.): Environment, Migration and Adaptation - Evidence and
Politics of Climate Change in Bangladesh. (AHDPH) Dhaka: (forthcoming).
DO NOT CITE WITHOUT PERMISSION. Contact: email@example.com
2 Environment, Migration and Adaptation in Bangladesh
‘push’ ‘pull’ factor ।
single sited ।
( , , ) ।
Translocal livelihoods and labour migration Systems in Bangladesh 3
1. INTRODUCTION ENVIRONMENT AND MIGRATION IN
Recently much work has been put into the understanding of the nexus between
climate change and migration (Foresight, 2011; Piguet et al., 2011; Walsham,
2010). Some migration researchers argue that there is a new migration phenome-
non, which is directly caused by climate change (El-Hinnawi, 1985; Myers and
Kent, 1995; Biermann and Boas, 2010). Other studies, however, draw attention to
the complexity of migration decisions and the fact that the different drivers as
well as the structural context need to be considered equally (Castles, 2002; Black
et al., 2011a). The challenging question is: how can we precisely distinguish be-
tween migration decisions, which are taken as response to climate change and
other reasons for migration? A changing and dynamic environment has always
characterized Bangladesh, and migration itself has been practiced since long time.
We argue that environmental change is not the only factor, which influences
current, and future migration patterns in Bangladesh, and that there is also the
tendency to overemphasize the environmental factors especially with regard to the
omnipresent discourse on climate change. The dynamics of globalization, the
changing conditions at the destination places, as well as the structural situation at
the places of origin are crucial factors and probably even more significant drivers
for migration in Bangladesh. All these various factors shouldn´t be neglected in
the discourses on environmental migration. In light of this, Findlay and Geddes
(2011) call for studying the various drivers in specific migration systems to under-
stand the relationship between the environment and migration.
We look at migration processes in Bangladesh from two complementary an-
gles: at the manifold drivers of migration decisions in the context of multiple in-
securities and - following recent work on transnationalism and translocality that
questions the sufficiency of single-site studies (Glick Schiller et al., 1992; Brickell
and Datta, 2012) this study explores insecurities in places of origin as well as
the conditions at the destinations. Moreover, we raise the question, if migration
can help in building social resilience against insecurities and threats, including
environmental changes. The evaluation of migration at the crossroads between
coping and resilience is of high importance, because past migration experiences,
which can be either positive or negative, will shape future migration flows.
2. STUDY REGION AND METHODOLOGY
The research area, Kurigram district, lies in the northwestern part of Bangladesh
at the border to India. Several major rivers, including the Brahmaputra, intersect
the district. The Brahmaputra cuts through Kurigram with a width of eight to
twelve kilometers. The three villages, in which the research started, are located at
the western river banks of the Brahmaputra. A high population density (1,000
4 Environment, Migration and Adaptation in Bangladesh
person/km²), a low literacy rate (around 40%) and unequal land distribution (30%
landless households) characterize the area (ASB, 2006). Agriculture is the most
important income source for the people. Approximately, 46 percent of the work-
ing population are land-owning farmers, 30 percent are agricultural laborers, three
percent are wage laborers, and 21 percent are involved in commerce, services, and
other activities (ASB, 2006).
Despite two harvest times per year and a regular surplus production of rice,
Kurigram is a poor and highly food insecure district and more than half of its peo-
ple live below the poverty line. Only few crop varieties are grown in the villages.
The major crops are aman and boro paddies
. Additionally, the farmers grow jute,
lentils, wheat and potatoes. Agriculture is for most families the only income
source. There are no employment opportunities in the industry as in neighboring
districts. Between the transplantation and harvest of the paddies, there are thus
hardly any employment opportunities for landless agricultural laborers. Seasonal
food insecurity during the lean period, also called monga, is caused by a lack of
access to food rather than availability of food. During that time, the affected popu-
lation has to reduce their food consumption and often the heads of households
migrate to work in other districts.
Fig. 1: Agricultural day laborer working a rice
field of a landowner in Khanpara
(Photo: Birtel, 2012).
Fig. 2: The Brahmaputra and the effects of
river bank erosion in Arazi-Kadamtola
(Photo: Birtel, 2012).
The field research was undertaken during the period of seasonal unemployment
and food insecurity (little monga) and started in the villages: Khanpara, Arazi-
Kadamtola, Kamar-Holokhana. When the research team arrived, people were
ready to leave the villages to work in Munshigonj, Feni and Dhaka, which was the
ideal opportunity to accompany them on their journey. The insights from our con-
tribution hence emerged from a multi-sited and translocal study. While one part of
Aman rice is a monsoon rice variety, mainly rain-fed, grown during July/August to December.
Boro rice is a dry season crop, mostly irrigated and grown during December to late April.
Translocal livelihoods and labour migration Systems in Bangladesh 5
the research team did extensive research in Kurigram, the other part of the team
followed (Marcus, 1995) on their journey. The interview partners
included migrants as well as non-migrants.
A range of methods were applied during two months of field research in Feb-
ruary, March and April 2012, including semi-structured interviews, participatory
methods (PRA), focus group discussions (FDG), and multi-sited ethnography. The
research was embedded into a joint research project between the Department of
Geography of the University of Bonn and the United Nations University Institute
for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), on rain fall variability, food
insecurity and human mobility. The study reveals that migration in Bangladesh is
embedded into a complex frame of insecurities (Ahmed el al. 2012).
3. OUT OF BALANCE LIVING WITH INSECURITIES
3.1 Multiple insecurities
Livelihood insecurity and people increasingly being at risk are re-emerging issues
for both scientists and policy-makers in the field of development (Devereux,
2001). Multiple insecurities are an integral part of the daily life in Bangladesh. It
is in this context that people use different livelihood strategies, migration being
one of them.
The first type of insecurity people face is the economic dimension. Economic
insecurities are grounded in the lack of working opportunities and fluctuating em-
ployments as day laborers resulting in a high rate of temporal unemployment or
general underemployment. As a result, over 40 percent of the population in Bang-
ladesh lives below the poverty line and 30 percent of the population suffers from
chronic food insecurity (GOB and WFP, 2004). The latter is a pressing problem
for the population in the North of Bangladesh. The yearly recurring seasonal food
insecurity phenomenon called monga is caused by an employment and income
deficit before the rice-harvesting season. Mostly poor rural households depending
on agriculture are vulnerable to seasonal food insecurity. Approximately one
fourth of the population in this region has to reduce the number of meals per day
as well as the quality of ingredients (Zug, 2006, see also Ahmed et al. 20011,
Etzold et al. 2013).
The second dimension are social and societal insecurities. Unequal land distri-
bution and uneven access to land are essential problems which are socially pro-
duced. In particular already poor families, elder people or women-headed house-
holds have very little access to resources and literally no possibilities to improve
their entitlement to resources. For example, only few people in the study sites
possess bigger plots of land. In contrast more than 87 percent of the population is
landless or land scarce (Ahmed et al. 2012). Subsequently, landless and poor
households are particularly prone to seasonal food insecurity but also resulting
issues like health problems.
6 Environment, Migration and Adaptation in Bangladesh
3.2 Migration decisions in the light of environmental change and climate risks
Ecologic insecurities represent the third dimension of insecurities. Floods and
river bank erosion have the potential to consolidate the structural inequalities,
described above and impose an additional burden especially on the rural poor
(Mortuza, 1992). While wealthier households can afford land in less exposed are-
as, poor and landless households often have their agricultural land and homesteads
in areas, which are frequently exposed to flooding and river erosion.
The northwest of the country and, consequently, our research area is dominated
by the Brahmaputra. In this geographical region the river is classified as a braided
river, which often changes direction. Therefore, the riverbed is constantly re-
shaped (Höfer and Messerli, 2006). This has severe consequences for the people:
experienced huge losses. The
river has washed away our land and houses. As a result we have to move to other places. In some cases
(participants at a focus group discussion in Khanpara).
Floods play a vital role in the agricultural system because they provide fertile
silt, which increases the productivity of the soil (Assheuer and Shoeb, 2006).
However, floods represent a risk to the people. Usually, the houses and roads in
rural Bangladesh are constructed on hills or dams. So that the daily life can con-
tinue during the monsoon floods with only minor obstructions. Nevertheless,
floods can occur with devastating impacts on human lives, infrastructure and the
In 1985, a severe flood struck the Kurigram district and
almost the whole aman rice harvest was destroyed. The result was unemployment
and severe food insecurity.
Additionally, creeping environmental processes deplete the livelihoods of the
people. The combination of riverbank erosion and flooding for example leads to
silting. In this case infertile sand accumulates on the fields and decreases produc-
tivity. Although, it is possible to remove the sand it is costly and time intensive.
Only richer farmers can afford this measure and poorer households will lose the
affected land sooner or later.
The discussion on climate change is in full swing in Bangladesh. Often, scien-
tists argue that Bangladesh is the most vulnerable country to climate change (Wal-
sham, 2010). The nexus between the environment including climate change
and migration has been controversially discussed. With regard to fast onset haz-
ards (e.g. floods or cyclones) a causal link between a specific event and migration
seems to be plausible. However, to draw a generally accepted nexus between en-
vironmental change and migration seems to be difficult. Therefore, several schol-
ars ask for more empirical and specific case studies.
drivers of specific migration systems is perhaps the best approach to making sug-
gestions about future trends in environmentally i (Findlay and
The interviewees reported from floods, which reached a level of 7 feet (approx. 2 m) above the
normal flood level. In the recent history of Bangladesh these severe floods occurred in 1974,
1987, 1988, 1991, 1992, 1997, 1998, 2004, 2007 and 2012 (Assheuer and Shoeb, 2006,
Translocal livelihoods and labour migration Systems in Bangladesh 7
Geddes, 2011, p. 140). So, what are the drivers behind migration and what are the
specific migration systems in Bangladesh? In the following we first raise the ques-
tions about the manifold migration decisions and second describe the migration
systems, which developed in Bangladesh over the time.
4. MIGRATION DECISIONS IN THE CONTEXT OF INSECURITY
As described above, the people in Kurigram are confronted with a range of in-
securities. A major strategy of households to cope with theses insecurities is la-
bour migration (Ahmed et al., 2012; Zug, 2006). At the same time, migration is
not only a coping strategy for food insecurity but also an important additional
source of income and a way of adaptation (Afsar and Baker, 1999). One third of
the households in the northwest migrate for labour during the lean period in agri-
culture. In some villages 80 percent of the income is generated through migration
(Black et al., 2011b). These figures show the importance of migration for a signif-
icant part of the rural population in Bangladesh.
4.1 Migration drivers
During our PRA group sessions, participants named and ranked several drivers for
their migrations decisions: (1) lack of money and land, (2) lack of working oppor-
tunities, (3) to learn a job, (4) costs in agriculture, (5) to improve livelihood status
and (6) to increase property and land ownership. Similar results were stressed dur-
ing the interviews with migrants. Seasonal unemployment, food insecurity and
agricultural production costs were stated by most of the interviewees as reasons
for migration. Lack of working opportunities (ovab) and food insecurity (monga)
have the same meaning for the people, since lack of money and unemployment
automatically leads to food insecurity.
riculture you need money. [...] We run out of money. That is why we go there (migrate) to earn
some money. J (Hassan
, farmer and seasonal migrant from Khanpara).
Interestingly, environmental changes were not mentioned as crucial for migra-
tion decisions. Even as we specifically addressed the topic, the influence of envi-
ronmental changes were neglected or even denied. Our interview partners per-
ceived changes in the severity and influence of environmental factors very differ-
ently and contrarily. They did not state any direct link between these changes and
their migration decisions. This does not mean, however, that environmental
changes are not influencing migration decisions. It is indeed to a certain extent
possible that environmental changes further amplify the multiple insecurities out-
lined above and thus shape the drivers of migration, i.e. when natural hazards lead
All names are changed for ethical reasons.
8 Environment, Migration and Adaptation in Bangladesh
to loss of property or land. The following quotation illustrates this implicit interre-
lation between environment and migration.
stroyed through river bank erosion. Then I worked for other people on their land but with that work I
could not earn enough to make a living. Then I got some connection with a labour group and I started to
go outside (migrate). It was .
4.2 Migration decisions in times of hardship
depleted during this month; we are in shonow for a
long time. [...] I have taken decision. T[go to
As the example of Abdur shows, the decision to migrate is often made at a very
late stage when people run out of financial resources and food stocks. Although
his income from migration is relatively high and his living conditions improved
since he migrates to Dhaka, migration is still a burden. Equally, the agricultural
labour migrants perceive migration as negative. This perception is mostly related
to hard working conditions (health problems, insufficient food, and the separation
from the families) combined with precarious dependencies on their employers.
ad. [...] to work is okay. But wa-
sonal migrant from Khanpara).
It seems plausible that due to negative migration experiences, migration deci-
sions in times of hardship are being taken at a late point. Almost every interview
partner emphasized to take this unpopular decision as a response to personal suf-
fering, especially during monga seasons:
have to l migrant, Khanpara).
4.3 The role of household characteristics and migration opportunities
Our research revealed that migration decisions and the possibility to migrate are
not only influenced by migration drivers or individual reasons, but equally by
household characteristics and migration opportunities. Not every household, who
sees the necessity to migrate, is also able to move. S
cially the poorest households cannot meet the migration costs or simply do not
have any access to migration networks and thus no opportunity to migrate (see
Ahmed et al. 2012; Etzold 2013).
In addition, we were able to observe a gender bias and the relevance of the
number of male household members in working age. Women usually cannot mi-
grate out of Kurigram. A household with only one male member is only able to
migrate short-term. Generally, only young males who do not have the responsibil-
ities of a household head are able to migrate for longer periods.
Translocal livelihoods and labour migration Systems in Bangladesh 9
Besides the close embeddedness into migration networks, migration opportuni-
ties are the necessary and sufficient conditions for migration processes. Migration
out of Kurigram can only happen when working opportunities are available at the
destinations, e.g. during harvesting season. Migration opportunities include labour
demand at the place of destination, contacts to employers, other migrants or mi-
gration entrepreneurs. Thus, it is of particular importance, not only to analyze the
conditions in the places of origin, but also to the same extent to examine the inter-
relations to the places of destination. Between these different places several mi-
gration systems developed over time, which will be presented in the following.
5. MIGRATION SYSTEMS IN BANGLADESH
Migration has always been a central part of the history of Bangladesh and is still
part of everyday life (Mortuza, 1992). The 19th century can be considered as the
beginning of international labour migration in Bangladesh. Until today, the colo-
nial background influences the international migration systems of Bangladesh.
The United Kingdom and former British colonies in the Middle East and South-
east Asia (Malaysia and Singapore) are still the main destination places for inter-
national migrants from Bangladesh (Siddiqui, 2003; 2005). Since the end of the
20th century, international migration has become an important economic factor.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated that in 2012 over
five million Bangladeshis were working overseas generating remittances of 13.73
In spite of the remarkable role of international migration, Bangladesh is a
country, which is shaped by internal migration. The country between the Brahma-
putra and Ganges is on the move. Since the 20th century, internal migration has
been increasing on the Indian subcontinent. In the 1980s, Skeldon (1985, p. 39)
observed that -continent but it is primarily
local. In particular, for marginalized and landless people, migration has become
an opportunity to escape from precarious living conditions. These flows of inter-
nal migration in Bangladesh were intensified by a beginning process of urbaniza-
tion and the advent of the garments industry, which set in after independence in
1971. During the last decades, stable migration systems developed all over the
country (de Haan et al., 2000, p. 5 f.).
Studies on migration in Bangladesh usually stressed the dominance of rural-
urban migration (Chaudhury, 1978; Begum, 1999; Islam, 1999). However, recent
studies show that rural-to-rural migration should not be neglected (Ahmed et al.,
2012; Birtel, 2012; Peth, 2012). In particular, the northwest and the south of
Bangladesh are regions generating migration flows towards the high potential
areas of agricultural production or the urban centers. The results show that both
urban as well as rural places are important destinations for internal migration. The
major migration systems, which were identified during the research, are presented
10 Environment, Migration and Adaptation in Bangladesh
5.1 The seasonal system of agricultural labour migration
Seasonal migration represents one of the most important migration types in Bang-
ladesh. In Kurigram the majority of the migrants are farmers searching for sea-
sonal and agricultural work. Munshigonj, Bogora, Feni, Sylhet or Karanigonj are
only but a few out of dozens of destination places where seasonal migrants from
Kurigram usually go (see fig. 4). In particular, during the harvest of rice, mustard,
chili or potatoes, the demand for seasonal labourers is high. By far, Munshigonj
district south of Dhaka is the
most significant destination for
seasonal migration. The area is
favorable for potato cultivation
and since the introduction of
High Yielding Varieties (HYV)
the potato has become the most
important good of the district.
tition. The question is who produces
the most of potatoes and a kind of
business started. We do it for busi-
ness and for that actually the first la-
boure (Ibrahim, farmer
Instead of a gold rush Munshigonj is experiencing a potato rush. During the la-
bor-intensive periods of plantation and harvest the farmers fall back on seasonal
laborers. The Munshigonj system developed in the early 1980s when the potato
was introduced. At the beginning, only few migrants came. In the course of time,
productivity increased and concomitantly a seasonal migration system emerged
which developed towards a well-organized just-in-time production system. Sea-
sonal migration is today organized in groups by so called shadars, which are the
group leaders. The shadars are in close contact with landowners, who call them
few days before they need labourers. All necessary details about the schedule, the
number of labourers, working conditions and payments are negotiated by mobile
phone before the actual migration is taking place. In many cases the employers
pay the bus tickets in advance or hire a whole bus, to make sure that the shadar
comes with the prior negotiated number of laborers.
During typical migration periods (see fig. 5) hundreds of seasonal migrants
from Kurigram and Rongpur are brought in busloads to Munshigonj district. The
working conditions are hard. The harvest has to be done quickly in order to avoid
germination and the loss of marketable potatoes. The seasonal laborers have thus
to work from early morning to late evening. The daily payment is, on average,
between 200 and 250 Taka, so that between 70 and 100 Euro can be remitted
home per year. For most migrants the potato harvest in Munshigonj is not enough
to cover the costs and annual demands of their families. Therefore, they do not
only work in Munshigonj, but follow the fruit picking seasons around the country.
Fig. 3: A farmer in Phultola (Munshigonj district) who is
supervising a group of seasonal migrants from Kurigram
harvesting potatoes. Next to him the shadar.
(Photo: Peth, 2012)
Translocal livelihoods and labour migration Systems in Bangladesh 11
Fig. 4: Migration map - destinations of migrants from Kurigram (Source: participatory migration
mapping with people in Khanpara, assessed by Atiqur Rahmam (CARE Bangladesh), Serge Birtel
and Simon Alexander Peth (University of Bonn) and Interviews with migrants in Kurigram as-
sessed by Serge Birtel and Sanaul Haque as well as in Munshigonj and Feni assessed by Simon
Alexander Peth and Hassan Gazi.( Cartography: Simon Alexander Peth)
Note: This map shows the relative importance of each destination for the people from Khanpara.
12 Environment, Migration and Adaptation in Bangladesh
Temporality, seasonality, and rhythms of labour migration
The structural conditions at the places of origin and the destinations are crucial
factors for the temporality and direction of labour migration. In other words the
translocal framing matters. Munshigonj is a very good example for that. When the
HYV potatoes were introduced to the area, in the early 1980s, the agricultural
system changed tremendously. Before the farmers in Munshigonj produced rice,
mustard and, lentils, which were cultivated by the families themselves. The pro-
duction of potatoes instead is too labor-intensive. In addition, the early 1980s saw
a boost of international migration. In particular young men left Munshigonj and
went to the Middle East and Singapore in order to earn more money. This lead to
a massive shortage of labour force in the whole region.
At the same time the Kurigram district was struck by a severe flood, which led
to unemployment and severe food insecurity. Thus, during that time, many people
from north Bangladesh decided to migrate and to look after work somewhere else.
When the first migrants arrived in Munshigonj they informed their friends and
relatives in Kurigram. As a consequence, more and more migrants came to Mun-
shigonj to replace the local labourers who left the country. Once this migration
process was evolved, people from Kurigram kept coming for the potato harvest.
Fig. 5: Seasonality of labour migration to selected destination places (Source: own investigation)
This has led to closely interwoven interrelations between these two spaces. Ex-
actly during the lean period in Kurigram (monga season; dark boxes in fig. 5)
there is an increased labour demand for the plantation (October to November) and
harvest of potatoes (March) in Munshigonj. Also compared to other destinations
of seasonal migration such as Feni, the periods of high labour demands are slight-
ly delayed. This is due to different maturing periods of the different crops. This
seasonal interplay enabled the development of a seasonal migration system in
Bangladesh, in the first place.
Translocal livelihoods and labour migration Systems in Bangladesh 13
5.2 The vocational training system the carpenters in Katputti
Land shortage has become
a serious issue in Bangla-
desh, which is one of the
most densely populated
countries in the world.
Especially, the younger
generations inherit, if so,
only very small plots of
land. This is having a con-
siderable impact on migra-
tion. In general, it can be
observed that especially
the youth and people with
a certain level of education
move to the urban centers.
Dhaka is not the only ur-
ban center which attracts migrants. Regional centers like Rangpur, Dinanjpur,
Chittagong, or Munshigonj town are typical urban destinations for the migrants
from Kurigram (see fig. 4). The small town of Katputti, which is located in the
Munshigonj district, is a remarkable example for vocational training migration.
Katputti is famous for its carpentries, which produce furniture, doors and win-
dows with a characteristic floral design (see fig. 6).
Since the early 1990s, young migrants from Kurigram have been coming to
Katputti in order to learn and work in the carpentries. Nowadays the migrants
from Kurigram are an integral part of the carpenter town.
(Abdul, master carpenter from Katputti).
Usually, the boys come from a very early age (eight to twelve years) to work as
a helper. In most cases, their parents could not afford the school fees anymore and
have to send their children to the carpenters, where they can learn a profession in
the non-farm sector and earn their own living.
that I thought that I have the ability to work and that I am a worker. I found it is a good work so I came
However, not everybody can obtain training in the carpentries. All comes down
to contacts with migrants (translocal social capital). Usually, the children go with
a relative or a close friend of the family, who is already working in one of the car-
pentries and who has asked the master in beforehand for the permission to bring
with a new pupil. Without these social relations, it is hardly possible to find a job
in the carpentries of Katputti. The average payment of 2,000 Taka (approx. 20
Euro) a month, is not as much compared to the seasonal migration or the Dhaka
Fig. 6: A door with floral design, the trademark of the carpen-
tries in Katputti (Munshigonj district) (Photo: Peth, 2012).
14 Environment, Migration and Adaptation in Bangladesh
system (see below), but on the other hand, work is available during the whole
year. The young carpenters are thus able to remit between 500 and 1000 Taka per
month to their families back home.
5.3 The Dhaka system
The capital Dhaka plays a particular role for the internal migration in Bangladesh.
Countless people from all over the country arrive every day in the capital in order
to find a job or to escape from precarious living conditions at home. Within the
Dhaka system, numerous subsystems can be identified with different working
opportunities such as rickshaw pulling, construction work, carpentry, street food
vending, or the ready-made garments industry (Etzold, 2013). The latter is of cru-
cial importance because many migrants find a job in this sector (Siddiqui et al.
2010). The rise of the gar-
ments industries began in
the late 1970s (Haider,
2007). From the very be-
ginning, this sector was
reliant on migrant workers
from rural Bangladesh.
According to a migrant
from Khanpara, Dhaka
seems to be an Eldorado
everybody gets a job in Dha-
(Shadat, a migrant from
the Kurigram district).
At a second glance, however, migration to Dhaka also involves a lot of risks.
just returned back from Dhaka. He stayed there five days. Out of these five days
he got only one day work. For this reason he had to go back home again. To do so he had to borrow
money in Dhaka and day by day his debts are increasing. It is a vicious circle. He went there to earn
Usually, migration within the Dhaka system is organized individually. As the quo-
tation above illustrates it is, nevertheless, essential to be embedded in translocal
migration networks in order to find work in the megacity. When new migrants
arrive in Dhaka, their friends and relatives usually help to find a job and shelter.
Nowadays, also factory owners travel to the countryside in order to recruit new
workers. Despite the boom of the garments industries, the number of available
jobs in the factories depends on the economic situation and overall demand for
garments in the world market. Generally, the peak season lasts for six months
Fig. 7: Dhaka is boomtown of the garments industry
(Photo: Peth, 2012).
Translocal livelihoods and labour migration Systems in Bangladesh 15
from February to August. After that, there is less demand for garment workers and
a first wave of employers is being laid off. Other factories, for instance those
which produce sweaters, close completely until the next season because of the
market saturation in the United States and the European Union.
A garment worker can earn between 10,000 and 12,000 Taka per month (95 to
115 Euros). Compared to the costs for seasonal agricultural migration, the living
costs in the capital are much higher. On average between 3,000 and 7,000 Taka
can be remitted home per month (30 to 70 Euros).
5.4 The moving day laborers
never goes with Shadars. Shadars do not take my
Not everybody has access to the migration systems described above. Translocal
social capital, which enables the access to a group, factory or carpentry, is essen-
tial. What do people do if they do not have any connection to shadars, employers
or other migrants? These migrants usually go individually to places where they try
to find work. Often they have to move from place to place, depending on the gen-
eral or seasonal demand for labourers. Also, these migrant labourers are prone to
live in very precarious conditions. Most of them are indebted and migration is the
only way to subsist. The main destinations for
migrants with low social
capital are urban centers
like Dhaka, Munshigonj,
Feni or Chittagong. These
migrants usually leave
whenever they have no
money left. Depending on
their skills and experienc-
es, they go to places where
they can work as rickshaw
driver, construction work-
er, in rice mills, as ship
breaker, or in any kind of
day labour. Usually, in
every town there is a gath-
ering place where the day
labourers can go in the morning. Potential employers come to that spot and hire
the workers they need (see fig. 8). A high level of uncertainty characterizes this
type of migration. Jobs are only available for one or few days. The competition is
high and the payment is low.
Fig. 8: Gathering place for migrant workers in Feni. An em-
ployer is arriving with his truck (see background) in order to
hire a group of day laborers. (Photo: Peth, 2012)
16 Environment, Migration and Adaptation in Bangladesh
Every day, there are countless migrants moving from one place to another. In-
deed, the migration systems outlined above are only a very small selection of nu-
merous migration systems, which developed over the time.
6. TRANSLOCAL SPACES THE INTERPLAY BETWEEN THE
PLACE OF ORIGIN AND THE DESTINATIONS
Above, we showed that migration processes are complex. Migration is not only a
question of yes or no, but also a question of how and where to go. It has also been
shown that in the case of Bangladesh, there are numerous migration systems. Mi-
gration decision can only be taken in the frame of these existing migration sys-
tems. Migrants need to get information about the rules within the system (e.g.
working conditions, payment), their possibilities where to migrate, and access to
specific migration networks (e.g. through translocal social capital). Additionally,
former migration experiences be they positive or negative are included into
decision-making. Last but not least the perception of environmental risks
and economic opportunities influences the question whether someone will migrate
The results of this study show that translocality matters in order to understand
migration decisions. In its basic term, translocality describes the embeddedness of
people in more than one place and society. We define translocality as a variety of
open and non-linear processes, which produce close interrelations between differ-
ent places and people. These interrelations and various forms of exchange are cre-
ated through migration flows and networks that are constantly questioned and
reworked. In these multi-scalar settings, mobile and immobile actors negotiate
and struggle over power and positions through the exchange of various capitals
2013, p. 375).
In many cases we examined, household decisions have become translocal de-
cisions. For example, the question whether a family in Kurigram, which possesses
a small plot of land can afford agricultural inputs (e.g. seeds, fertilizer) depends
on the economic success of its migrants. In turn, the actual financial situation at
home determines how long the migrant will stay outside of Kurigam.
More general speaking, the case of Kurigram and Munshigonj shows how dif-
ferent places merge into one translocal space. Different processes of translocali-
zation can be observed between Kurigram and Munshigonj. A special bus con-
nection between Kurigram and the district capital of Munshigonj bringing a rising
number of passengers and goods from Kurigram to Munshigonj. The bus leaves
four times every day which led to a translocalization of infrastructure. Also a
service of mobile remittances has been established by businessmen in both places,
which provides the possibility to transfer money within thirty minutes.
Moreover, a social translocalization can be observed. For example the employers
of the seasonal labour groups expand their social relations to the place of origin in
order to gain a certain social control.
Translocal livelihoods and labour migration Systems in Bangladesh 17
directly to the labour group leader. I know someone in Khanpara who is a union council member. I have
this connection because I visit him from time to time. So if I would give the money to the Shadar he
maybe will not come or only few laborers will come. You know many problems can arise. But if I influ-
ence the elite or the influential people in Kurigram, then I can give the money through this person. That
These translocal ties represent only few examples of various translocal interre-
lations. However, it has become obvious that these translocal structures directly
influence migration decisions, such as where to go or how to go? Thus, translocal-
ity creates not only migration opportunities but can in turn also determine migra-
tion decisions and the direction of migration flows.
7. MIGRATION BETWEEN COPING AND RESILIENCE
Seasonal labour migration in Bangladesh is often described as a survival strategy
or livelihood strategy of the poor (Siddiqui, 2003). One major question that
emerged during the field research was, if migration out of Kurigram is a way for
people to cope with insecurities or, even further, if migration can help them to
build resilience against environmental changes and seasonal and chronic food
insecurity. Resilience of social-ecologic systems is often defined as
-organize while undergoing change so as to still
retain essentially the same function, structure
Based on this concept, scholars have developed the concept of social resilience,
which is people centered and puts emphasis on the agency of people (Bohle et al.,
2009). Social resilience can therefore be defined as
Furthermore, social resilience can be analyzed in three dimensions: (1) coping
capacities, (2) adaptive capacities, and (3) transformative capacities (Keck and
Sakdapolrak, 2013). In contrast to coping, which means minimizing the conse-
quences of an adversity and to ensure survival, resilience involves planning, pre-
venting and avoiding of stresses and shocks. While coping is a reactive action and
trast implies their proactiveness and mastering of threats also in the future (Obrist
et al., 2010).
Generally, there are few opportunities for the people in Kurigram to build resil-
ience without migration. Hence, migration is not only an important strategy for
coping with crises, but can also increase the resilience of households against
threats, that potentially lead to crises. Households can invest remittances from
migration into agricultural production (e.g. irrigation) or they can buy more food
and thereby become more food secure. Migration, therefore, helps in strengthen-
ing coping capacities for facing insecurities.
18 Environment, Migration and Adaptation in Bangladesh
To a certain extent, migration has also the potential to build adaptive capacities
because remittances are also invested in less flood exposed houses or property or
in purchasing land, livestock, improved seeds, and other agricultural inputs. How-
ever, migration does not to lead to profound transformations of households or
With regard to the migration systems described above, different implications
for strengthening resilience can be observed. Remittances from short-term rural-
rural migration, in particular from agricultural laborers, are often just enough to
cope with seasonal food insecurity during monga. Due to the low income and high
indebtedness, most households are not able to save money in order to invest into
resilience-building activities. Incomes derived from long-term migration, howev-
er, are in some cases sufficient to improve both, the coping capacities as well as
the adaptive capacities. Generally speaking, while seasonal migration during
monga tends to be rather reactive, long-term migration seems to be more proac-
tive. Hence, migration decisions in the latter case are usually being made before a
8. CONCLUSION THE PLEA FOR A TRANSLOCAL AND MULTI-
Despite two harvest times, every year, the people in northwest Bangladesh have to
face chronic and seasonal insecurities, in particular food insecurity. This monga
phenomenon is caused by an employment and income deficit before the rice-
harvesting season. Migration is said to be an important coping strategy during
monga. At the same time, migration is a normal, very common livelihood strategy
for many households to increase, diversify and translocalize their income. Our
study aimed at understanding both the context in which migration decisions are
taken and the role of migration for coping with insecurities. Above that, we want-
ed to explore the potential of migration for building resilience.
Over the last decades, a rethinking in migration studies took place. Migration is
no longer seen as one-dimensional social process. In a globalized world, migra-
tion processes are more dynamic and more diverse. Thus they can only be under-
stood beyond the old approach of push and pull factors. Recent attempts of migra-
tion studies have put forward, that a rethinking of society and space is needed in
order to understand the various migration phenomena (Glick Schiller et al., 1992;
Brickell and Datta, 2012). Our study follows this understanding. The results show
that migration is always embedded in a specific context, such as the multiple inse-
curities of the people in Kurigram. Poverty, food insecurity, seasonal unemploy-
ment, environmental risk or a stroke of fate can lead to the decision to migrate.
However, these drivers are a necessary, but not sufficient condition for migration.
The results from this study show that the opportunity to migrate is linked to the
interplay between the places of origin and the destinations. To understand the
phenomena and the consequences of migration it is thus important not only to
examine the decisions of migration at the place of origin, but also to explore mi-
Translocal livelihoods and labour migration Systems in Bangladesh 19
gration trajectories, the destinations and migration experiences. The direction of
migration flows depends on different factors. On the one hand, existing social
networks between migrants and non-migrants at the place of origin and the desti-
nations are essential for the question where to migrate. On the other hand, the spe-
cific conditions, in particular the labour demand, at the destinations are decisive
whether migration is taking place or not. Therefore, we argue that a translocal
approach is needed to understand migration.
Recently, much effort had been put into the understanding of the nexus be-
tween climate change and migration. In the case of Bangladesh, the link between
environmental change (climate change in particular) and migration seem to be
complex. First, the impacts of climate change are multilayered and the distinction
between a general environmental variability and climatic changes is ambiguous.
Second, a decision to migrate does not only depend on the mere existence of driv-
ing forces, such as environmental factors, but also on household characteristics
and migration opportunities.
Our study took into account as well the environmental factors on migration.
Bangladesh has always been characterized by a changing and dynamic environ-
ment. Migration itself has been practiced in Bangladesh since long time. Yet, the
question remains in how far climate change will influence the existing migration
patterns in Bangladesh. Either way, climate change will not be the only factor
which influences migration patterns. The changing conditions at the multiple des-
tinations as well as the conditions at the regions of origin are crucial factors for
the future migration patterns in Bangladesh.
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