The coronavirus pandemic is set to deal a heavy blow to the country's overseas job market and the remittance flow as a large number of Bangladeshi migrants have already lost their jobs or were receiving low wages amid shutdowns enforced to stem the spread of the virus, say economists and researchers.
After different businesses were closed due to the shutdown, the documented workers are being provided with basic wages, but the undocumented ones are getting nothing at all. Working hours of many, including in cleaning jobs and those at grocery stores, have also been slashed.
On the other hand, thousands of Bangladeshi migrants who came home on leave and those who were waiting to fly after securing work visas are not being able to join work abroad as the destination countries have imposed travel bans in face of the coronavirus outbreak, which, according to the experts, is now threatening to cause a global recession.
"Remittance is likely to see a significant reduction in a few months," Prof Syeda Rozana Rashid of Dhaka University's international relations told The Daily Star.
There is low pay or no pay for many who are suffering abroad. Besides, a large number of Bangladeshis are not able to join work abroad, she said, adding, "This is like a double-edged sword that the country is facing."
Remittance from expatriates is one of the main pillars of the Bangladesh economy. About one crore Bangladeshi migrants sent home $18.35 billion in remittance last year alone.
Most of the amount comes from countries like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, USA, UK, Italy and Malaysia.
USA, Italy and UK are the countries hit hardest by the pandemic. The Gulf and Southeast Asian countries, though less affected than Western countries, are also enforcing shutdowns to stop the transmission of Covid-19.
Talking to The Daily Star from US, Italy, France, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, many Bangladeshis said they were staying indoors after their workplaces were closed amid the shutdown.
One migrant, Raju Ahmed, 30, said the grocery store he works at was still open in Kuala Lumpur, but his working hours were halved. "Now I hardly earn Tk 25,000, whereas my previous monthly salary was Tk 40,000."
Raju along with five others, including three undocumented workers, lives in an apartment in the Malaysian capital. "Those three have lost their jobs. I am helping one of them while the two others were surviving on their savings."
Rana Ahmed, a Bangladeshi in Lebanon, said he had to borrow money from his relatives in Faridpur to survive in the coronavirus-hit Western Asian country, which had already been facing an economic crisis.
"We don't know when the situation will improve. We are passing our days in total uncertainty," said the 30-year-old who has lost his job.
Hanif Mia from Saudi Arabia said the coronavirus outbreak has thrown thousands of migrants into uncertainty. "Those who are undocumented are facing more trouble as they have no job guarantee or earnings."
With these migrants in trouble, Bangladesh perhaps has already started to feel the impact.
In March, Bangladeshi expatriates sent home around $1.29 billion in remittance, which is 12.84 percent less than that of February and the lowest in 15 months, according to Bangladesh Bank data.
DU Prof Syeda Rozana Rashid said the countries which receive foreign workers had already allocated a significant portion of their budget for the recovery of their economy. It means development activities in those countries will be cut and demand for foreign workers will drop.
Fahmida Khatun, executive director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), said in the 2019-20 fiscal year, when most other indicators -- export, private sector investment or foreign direct investments -- were showing slow or negative growth, migrant remittance was the only good news.
Remittance inflow in 2019 stood at $18.35 billion, while it was $15.54 billion the previous year.
"Now with the coronavirus pandemic, things are turning very different. There is no guarantee when the migrants, who have returned home, can go back to work," Fahmida told The Daily Star.
Even, those who are already in those countries may face job cuts given the looming economic recession, she said. "All together, the economy of Bangladesh will be under pressure."
Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET) data shows around 60,000 Bangladeshis go abroad for jobs every month. So, if the coronavirus pandemic lingers, queues of those waiting to join overseas jobs will only grow bigger, said the experts.
THE IMMEDIATE NEED
Migration researchers and economists say the immediate need now is to provide healthcare and financial protection to the migrants.
Fahmida Khatun said many migrant workers could already be infected with coronavirus. So, the Bangladesh government must ensure that they get proper healthcare. Those who have lost jobs must be ensured financial protection.
"They must survive this crisis period. After the next few months, the government should take up mid-term plans on ensuring their jobs abroad and help them with microloans in productive sectors," she said.
Syeda Rozana Rashid said the vulnerable families, who depend on migrant remittances, should be identified and provided with social protection by the government.
She said thousands of migrant workers, especially in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, have been deported in recent times, as part of the countries' plans to reshape their economic policy prioritising local workforce.
Now that it is a global crisis, Bangladesh and other labour-sending countries can and should negotiate with the labour-receiving countries so that they don't deport the undocumented migrants, but regularise them as a sign of global solidarity, she said.
Colombo Process, a platform of the Asian labour-sending countries, and Abu Dhabi Dialogue, a platform of the labour-receiving countries, should come together and find out ways that are beneficial for all, Rozana Rashid said.
The expert also said imposition of health emergency proved that the developed countries would focus more on improving their healthcare system. "It will require more workforces in the health sector."
"We have mostly semi-skilled and low-skilled people going abroad to work. We can now focus on the skills training on nursing, health technology, management, medicine and hospitality as part of our migration strategy," she added.
(Porimol Palma, The Daily Star, April 04, 2020)