Sabbir Hossain of Munshiganj returned home from Malaysia in mid-March when the Southeast Asian country was planning a lockdown to stem the spread of coronavirus.
“I thought returning home instead of being trapped there would be better. So, I came back. However, now my employer is saying I cannot go back to work in Malaysia because there is no work,” he told The Daily Star yesterday.
Sabbir, 27, who worked in the construction sector in Johor Baruh for four years, said it took him almost three years to recoup the migration cost of Tk 3.5 lakh before he saved some money to construct a house.
“I don’t have any savings now. If I get some loans, I may start a small business,” he said without being sure what business he can do.
Sabbir said most of his Bangladeshi colleagues in Malaysia are now jobless and are worried about their future.
Migration experts and recruiting businesses fear several lakh Bangladeshi migrants might return home in the coming months after losing jobs as the economies of destination countries, mostly in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, are being badly affected because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Against this backdrop, Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal has proposed the allocation of Tk 500 crore that will be loaned to returnee migrants on easy terms for their rehabilitation through the Probashi Kalyan Bank. The Wage Earners’ Welfare Board will allocate another Tk 200 crore with a similar objective.
Experts say the amounts are inadequate and also that the Probashi Kalyan Bank has not been proved to be efficient enough in loan management and socio-economic reintegration of returnee migrants.
Prof KAS Murshid, director general of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, said many of the returnees will be totally penniless or even in debt. Providing them with economic and social rehabilitation will be a very important task.
Bangladeshi migrants face more risks of slipping into poverty because they pay hefty amounts for migration, experts said.
Khurshid suggested that returnee migrants be incorporated into the main stimulus or safety net programme for the initial months. At the same time, their skills should also be updated based on their needs so they can find jobs at home or abroad or can start small business with loans.
WHY THE WORRY
According to the civil aviation ministry, about 7 lakh Bangladeshis returned from abroad between January and March this year. How many of these are migrant workers has not been separately counted yet.
The Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET) says about 11,000 Bangladeshi migrants were repatriated between April 1 and June 8, while the foreign ministry said nearly 25,000 more will be repatriated in the coming weeks.
Officials of the Bangladesh embassies concerned said jobs in the construction and services sectors have been affected the most during the pandemic. With oil prices seeing a radical drop, Middle Eastern countries will have a very slow growth in economy. That means construction companies may cut jobs.
Abu Hayat, a migration researcher in Malaysia, said he knows a lot of Bangladeshis with no job prospects in Malaysia who are waiting to return home. They are just waiting for the international flights to resume operation.
“Those who are contractual day workers and undocumented are facing the real brunt,” he said.
A Bangladesh embassy official in Saudi Arabia too said the same. “Saudi Arabia has been very strict over the last two years about undocumented foreign workers. They have been deporting such migrants in large numbers,” he said.
With the economy slowing down amid drop in oil prices, undocumented and daily contractual migrants may find it difficult to find jobs even after the pandemic is over, he said.
According to recruiting businesses and migration experts, 15-20 percent of over one crore Bangladeshi migrants are undocumented.
On the other hand, new jobs will also see a sharp decline. In January and February, 1.29 lakh workers had left for overseas jobs. Recruiting agencies said some 1.5 lakh Bangladeshis, who had visas, could not fly abroad for jobs in March and April. There’s sheer uncertainty if they could fly even after the flights are in operation.
Economists say every year some 20 lakh jobseekers enter the job market, and nearly 40 percent of them (about 7 lakh) go abroad.
“There’s already joblessness within the country. We can see fresh job cuts amid the coronavirus pandemic. It will be very difficult to manage the unemployment problem,” said Prof ATM Nurul Amin, chairman of the Department of Economics and Social Sciences in BRAC University.
He said employment of returnee migrants will be a real challenge. They find it very difficult to set up a business at home. They need re-skilling and easy loans. More than those, they need a good condition for doing business, but how that could be ensured is the real question.
Prof Nurul Islam, former director at the BMET, said authorities must have a robust database of the returnee migrants, and maintain their contacts and skillsets. Based on that, they could be re-skilled and provided with easy loans for small businesses.
“Loan itself is not enough. They should be equipped with business strategies and modern technical know-hows of businesses and marketing,” he said.
Prof ATM Nurul Amin said there should be strong institutions with trusted individuals to make sure there is an effective loan management system for the migrants to facilitate their businesses.
He said that agriculture is the backbone of the country’s economy, and the pandemic has again proved farming is the saviour. With exports sliding, boosting agriculture, agro-industries, small and medium enterprises is the need of the day.
Prof Syeda Rozana Rashid of Dhaka University said the demand for health professionals — doctors, nurses, medical technologists and equipment technicians — will be of high demand globally.
“We should focus on this area now as we talk of building skills, finding markets and ensuring migration governance,” said Rozana, a migration researcher.