In contrast to their major contribution to the country’s economy, thousands of migrant workers living abroad have received little or no help from Bangladesh government to fight their financial hardship during the pandemic.
There is a growing concern that several lakh out of more than one crore Bangladeshi migrant workers may lose jobs due to the economic downturn.
International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Bangladesh in recent a statement said, “Due to the economic and labour crisis created by the Covid-19 pandemic, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers are expected to return by the end of the year.”
Against this backdrop, migrant rights activists have called for financial support directly from the government coffers, for both returnees and those staying overseas.
They urged the government to show “commitment” by adequately addressing the plight of migrant workers, who are the country’s one of three major economic pillars, alongside the farmers and garment workers.
Contacted, Ahmed Munirus Saleheen, secretary to the expatriates’ welfare and overseas employment ministry, said they were giving priority to support the migrant workers who were forced to return after losing jobs and now facing hardship due to the pandemic.
“Because, we hope, those who preferred to stay abroad will be able to pull through.”
Talking to this newspaper on June 16, he said the ministry provided immediate support of about Tk 11 crore to overseas workers via different Bangladesh missions and will continue to do so.
Asked whether they have plans to support overseas workers for long-term survival amid the current economic crisis, Wage Earners’ Welfare Board (WEWB) Director General Hamidur Rahman said they were considering such a step as a secondary option.
Foreign employers and the governments of the respective countries have their duties and responsibilities for the migrant workers. And no worker can be fired arbitrarily or left starving because of the pandemic, he told this newspaper over the phone.
The official stressed the need for stronger diplomatic effort to protect the migrant workers abroad.
According to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training, more than 13 million Bangladeshis, including less-skilled, semi-skilled and skilled migrant workers and professionals went abroad, for overseas employment since 1976 till May this year.
After the pandemic began in the country, the government announced a bailout package of Tk 500 crore while the expatriates’ welfare ministry announced a separate Tk 200 crore loan scheme for the migrant workers.
However, both the packages are likely to be disbursed as loans only for economic reintegration of the returnees. The workers struggling abroad to survive the pandemic are not getting anything from it.
Officials said the Tk 200 crore loan will come from the WEWB fund, which is created with the money of migrant workers.
According to a BSS report, the Tk 500 crore package was announced by the prime minister on May 14 for the expatriates who became jobless during the coronavirus pandemic. The money will be given to Probashi Kalyan Bank so that the returnees “can do something here by taking loan from the bank.”
Talking to this newspaper over phone, Prof Tasneem Siddiqui, chair of Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU), said migrant workers have contributed to the country’s revenue generation through sending remittance.
However, there is little reflection for them in the proposed national budget of 2020-2021, she said.
“The state needs to show its commitment [towards migrant workers].”
IT’S THEIR OWN MONEY
Over the years, funds from the WEWB have been allocated for the welfare of migrant workers and their family members, said migrant rights activists and officials.
WEWB DG Hamidur Rahman said the fund did not see expected rise during the pandemic because of a stalemate in the labour recruitment process, since the money is collected from workers’ registration.
For the past several years, Tk 3,500 has been collected from each worker during the registration.
WEWB spends nearly Tk 3.5 lakh from the fund against each regular migrant worker who dies abroad, he added.
According to an official there, WEWB has a fund of over Tk 1,000 crore at present.
Wishing anonymity, he said during the Covid-19 outbreak, about Tk 9.44 crore was approved from the welfare fund to support migrant workers abroad.
Besides, about Tk 2.96 crore was distributed among the returnees for their transportation cost (Tk 5,000 to each worker) during the shutdown till May 30.
Also, about Tk 9.79 crore has been given from WEWB as part of premium for workers’ mandatory insurance, he added.
This total amount was given alongside the announced Tk 200 crore loan.
RMMRU Chair Prof Tasneem, referring to the loan scheme, said this is from workers’ money. “It should have come from the government’s revenue budget.”
Shariful Hasan, head of Brac Migration Programme, said using workers’ money from their fund in such a way during the pandemic could jeopardise the regular welfare activities and put their future in uncertainty.
There is no separate allocation for overseas migrant workers from the government’s coffers although there is an initiative to give fund for other sectors, he added.
Secretary Saleheen of the expatriates’ welfare ministry affirmed that the wage earners’ welfare fund is created with the money of migrant workers.
“And there is no doubt that this fund will be spent for their welfare and for no other means,” he said.
Shamsul Alam, director general of Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training, said if required, they can facilitate training of returnees for their economic reintegration.
According to WEWB’s annual report of 2017-18, Tk 359 crore was spent as “support, grants and expatriates welfare” in the fiscal year.
In 2016-17 and 2015-16, such expenditures were Tk 198 crore and Tk 181 crore respectively, said annual reports for those fiscal years.
The amounts were spent mainly as medical grants (for the physically disabled, ailing and injured), financial compensation, carrying dead bodies and funerals, scholarship, special allocation, and for smart cards, said the reports.
In 2017-18 and 2016-17, WEWB invested Tk 235 crore and Tk 50 crore to the Probashi Kalyan Bank. It also approved Tk 7,28,172 and Tk 11.38 lakh for missions abroad in those years.
These expenditures were included as that for “support, grant, and expatriates welfare”.