ECONOMYNEXT – Could South Asian administrations put aside political differences to pave the way for a common industrial hub?
As a panel of experts opined recently, it is not that the region is lacking in natural and human resources, both skilled and unskilled, in the case of the latter category.
However, a common platform in terms of policy as well as change of attitude amongst the peoples is critical if South Asia is to attract manufacturers to set up shop in the region.
It’s time,observed the panel, that intra-regional capacities areleveraged to benefit South Asia as a whole.
Wansapriya Gunaseela, the Managing Director of Buildtek Consultants (pvt) Ltd., Sri Lanka,pointed out that even though the region’s labour force is primarily made up of youth, only about half of these young people are actively engaged in industry, therefore, it is important to motivate the other half.
The panel discussion on ‘Unlocking the Region’s Potential: Labour Mobility in South Asia’, held on September 20, was moderated by Waqar Rizvi, a Canadian-Pakistani TV Host and socio-political analyst.
Joining Gunaseela on the panel were Ms. Bhawani Rana, Chairperson of the Fortuna Group, Nepal and Mr. Asim Jamal, CEO of SANOFI, Pakistan. The webinar is part of the ‘Restart Asian Economies’ series organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF), South Asia.
Gunaseela said that if South Asia is to effectively compete with other markets, it must increase productivity.
But first, the region must look at the different strengths and resources of neighbouring countries and build a common framework.
COVID 19, he said has increased dependence on digitalisation and automation, and South Asia must seize that opportunity to redesign training modules and upgrade skills, so that a five hundred member workforce would be able to do the work that is now carried out by a thousand workers.
Such improvements he said would result in increased productivity and higher wages for workers.
COVID 19, says Bhawani Rana, has brought many migrant workers back to their home countries. They are mostly skilled workers who have already been exposed to a work culture overseas. South Asia must act now to attract these and other members of the labour force to find employment within the region.
As she points out, though wages may not be equivalent to what workers may earn in foreign countries, awareness must be raised on the advantage of working closer to their homes and on the shared cultural practices and safety aspects of staying within the region. However, she stresses, if labour migration within the region is to be attractive, governments must introduce better and easier cross-border travel.
Says Jamal, the SAARC region is home to more than 20percent of the world’s population; they are mostly young, with good skills.They are comfortable moving between countries.
For decades, he says, there have been Pakistanis working in Bangladesh’s garment sector. It is the same with Sri Lankans.
Moreover, he cited examples from his own organisation where staff was sent from Pakistan to Bangladesh and India on a temporary basis to resolve various situations.
However, staff face issues around ease of movement, and they are also required to report to a police station throughout their stay, which, unfortunately takes up a good part of the day.
While SAARC has expressed the need for a common agenda, it is now up to the administrations of each country to begin a dialogue at all levels, he points out. Joint initiatives, he says, should open up opportunities for research and development in the field of pharmaceuticals, for instances; to make the region a centre of excellence.
Jamal also stated that the pandemic provided the perfect opportunity for South Asia to share their knowledge on vaccine production. Such an endeavour would have produced cost effective vaccines for the people of the region.
Retaining the workers, particularly the women in the region is key, says Rana.
“We need to develop a strategy by which the women workers do not go to the Middle East or West Asia. We need to emphasize the advantages of living and working closer to home. Connectivity among South Asian countries has improved there are many roads, highways, railway lines even sea lines.”
These are the advantages that should be showcased.
While making it attractive for South Asians to remain within the region, Jamal points out that the right of individuals to determine whether they should seek employment outside the region, such as in the Gulf nations must be recognised.
Echoing his co-panelists, Gunaseela says administrations must identify individualneedsand strengths, and irrespective of political differences introduce policies that will promote South Asia as the industrial ‘one stop shop.’
Cricket, he says is the common denominator that binds South Asians. Why, he asks, is that not reflected in building a common industrial agenda, opening doors for companies to hire the best in the trade from across the region.
Such a strategy would improve quality and standards, and pose a challenge to European businesses; in fact the sharing of resources and ease of movement should be the same as in the European Union.
Workers may however, consider employment overseas as opportunities to earn better wages in foreign currencies.
Says Rana, if the labour force is to remain within regional boarders they need to understand the value in that;in Nepal for instance the social security fund should be another attraction, apart from the safety factor.
Gunaseela adds, that especially the skilled and unskilled labour force see an opportunity of working long hours to remit money home, though they themselves would actually be left with only a small portion of their wages to survive on in a foreign land. That should be compared against the opportunity to live and work closer home.
To achieve all that policies on education too need a change, where vocational training or business studies are also given importance.
Most importantly, a change of attitude amongst South Asians is necessary; it is time to value products manufactured within the region, instead of believing that ‘foreign made’ goods are of higher standards.
As Gunaseela pointed out, garments and other goods sold in European and Western markets are produced in South Asia and meet those standards. Yet, South Asians continue to subscribe to the myth that goods produced in the region and available in the local market are sub-standard.
Private sector stakeholders obviously see the benefits of promoting regional cooperation in building a strong industrial hub in South Asia. They are ready to tap into the natural resources and the fairly substantial labour force to make this a reality.
However, for workers in South Asia to seek opportunities in neighboring countries would require the mutual lowering of barriers by the countries in the region to that type of migration. For millennia the peoples of these countries have traded their goods and interacted with each other.
Yet barriers, a throwback from Colonia rule, which mostly revolve around security concerns, competing political ideologies and historical reasons, continue to hamper strengthening of ties and building a common industrial agenda.
Other regional groups such as the European Union and the Association of South East Asian Nations are countries which warred against each other for centuries. Although there is still the occasional spat, and statements critical of neighbouring countries are made, on the practical matters of trade and mutual profit and advancement they show solidarity.
It is time that South Asia followed those examples.