Int’l Migration Day Today: Present grim, future worrying
Shahadat Hossain was all set to fly to Saudi Arabia in March as a date farm worker, dreaming of a better life for his family members. But before he could make his journey, came the deadly Covid-19, suspending air communications with the Gulf countries in mid-March.
Like everything that came to a staggering halt, Shahadat's scheduled migration was suspended. The 30-year-old from Chandpur now drives a CNG-run auto-rickshaw to earn a living as his documents are under process for a visa reissuance by the Saudi Arabia Embassy in Dhaka.
"I could have earned a monthly wage of 1,050 Riyal [Tk 23,600]. Besides, there was the opportunity to earn extra by working overtime. But now I end up earning Tk 200-300 a day by driving the auto-rickshaw. It is difficult to run my three-member family with this income," said Shahadat.
While the pandemic deprived workers like Shahadat from a decent earning, it also cast a dark shadow over the country's labour migration as the sector is likely to see a significant fall in annual overseas employment this year.
The Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) data shows about 1.81 lakh workers went abroad from January till May this year. BMET does not yet have the updated data till December.
On the other hand, seven lakh or more workers made it overseas for jobs in the past four consecutive years with a record high of 10.08 lakh in 2017, shows BMET data.
When it comes to the existing job situation, around 3.26 lakh Bangladeshi expatriates returned home between April 1 and November 30 this year after coronavirus struck, says Expatriates' Welfare Ministry data.
Most of them returned almost empty-handed after job losses.
Now they see a bleak future ahead with little or no prospect of a job anytime soon in the host countries. The government's various initiatives including a Tk 200 crore special loan scheme for their economic reintegration could not yield benefits to the bulk of the returnees.
Besides, after the pandemic hit, thousands of workers who came home on vacation remained stuck for months and endured sufferings in going back to their workplaces.
Now sector insiders said fresh demands have started to arrive.
The expatriates' welfare and overseas employment ministry approved applications for new recruitments recently, according to documents available on its website.
However, demand letters that recruiting agencies are now receiving are around 10 to 20 percent of what they used to get in the given time before the pandemic, said Shameem Ahmed Chowdhury Noman, secretary general of Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira).
Migrant rights activists and experts said as the pandemic hit the international labour market badly, there are reasons to be worried.
They said the government's concrete efforts are required to explore new markets since some existing markets are undergoing reforms in face of economic challenges compounded by the pandemic.
Lack of efforts could cause Bangladesh's labour markets abroad to shrink, they said, adding the government should prepare a skilled workforce to compete in the post-coronavirus global market.
BMET data shows this year's highest number of overseas workers to be the 1.33 lakh workers employed in Saudi Arabia, followed by 17,398 workers in Oman.
Besides, 9,418 workers have employment in Singapore, 3,503 in Qatar, 3,068 in Jordan, 2,000 in Mauritius, and 1,743 in Kuwait.
While Lebanon and Brunei hired respectively 4,863 and 3,628 workers last year, they hired only 479 and 528 workers as of May this year.
On the other hand, Malaysia stopped hiring workers from Bangladesh in September 2018.
Shariful Hasan, head of Brac Migration Programme, said considering the present coronavirus situation in various countries, the global labour market might not return to normalcy before the middle of next year.
He stressed that the government can take this as an opportunity to prepare workers focusing on new skills that will be required in the post-coronavirus market.
Due to the pandemic situation, new demands like those in the medical technology field have been created, he said.
Besides exploring new markets, diplomatic efforts should be made to hold on to existing labour markets, Shariful said.
The good reputation of Bangladeshi workers and their contributions to the development of host countries can be addressed aptly in this regard, he added.
He also said the economies of Middle East countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were already undergoing reforms when the pandemic hit.
So there is a concern that the labour market for Bangladeshis in those countries will shrink, he said.
But there is scope for expanding existing markets in Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore, he added.
Shariful said exploring new markets remained largely on paper and at the discussion table over the years.
The government has to take time-bound targets while exploring new markets, he added.
Shakirul Islam, chairman of Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Programme, said Saudi Arabia has its own long-term plans regarding its economy which includes the Saudi Vision-2030.
They want to ensure migration of skilled workers, he said.
"We have to multiply our efforts if we want to hold on to the market," he said, adding the efforts should be on creating a skilled workforce and scope for them in the overseas market through bilateral negotiations.
He also said in exploring new labour markets, it should be kept in mind that Bangladeshi workers should not become victims of forced labour.
He suggested exploring markets in countries like China, Japan, Italy and Portugal, which have better economic conditions and migration-friendly policies.
Baira Secretary General Shameem Ahmed Chowdhury Noman said foreign employers, mainly from Saudi Arabia, started to send new demand letters which the recruiting agencies have started to process.
The situation is improving gradually, he said.
Besides, a nominal number of workers have also started to go abroad, he added.
Moreover, demand letters which were received before the pandemic this year are also under process, he further said.
Contacted, BMET Director General Shamsul Alam said they have been working to bring back normalcy in the labour migration sector.
The DG said besides workers going abroad in small numbers, professionals have also started to go for overseas jobs in some African and European countries.
"We are resuming it step by step," he told this newspaper by phone.