Corona pandemic may end at a certain point in time but what is uncertain is the fate of over 10 million Bangladeshi Diaspora; primarily the low-skilled Bangladeshi workers in the Middle East. The labour market in the Middle East has been severely impacted by COVID-19, leaving millions of expat workers with no choice but to pack their bags and leave. Bangladeshi workers are more venerable because they are relatively low-skilled, linguistically untrained compared to other manpower exporting countries. There are an estimated 65 per cent of overall Bangladeshi expatriates known as the remittance fighters earning their living in Middle Eastern countries. COVID-19 has put their fate at stake.
New hiring activities from Bangladesh and elsewhere in the manpower importing countries came to a standstill ever since the COVID-19 wave started. In the year 2019, according to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) out of the 700,159 workers flown Bangladesh, 572,387 in total were headed to the Middle East region mainly to KSA, UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Lebanon, Jordan, Libya and Iraq. Rest 127,772 were flown to various other destinations; to be precise Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Brunei, Mauritius, and other directions. Compared to the period from January to August last year, this year the number has declined by 41.01 per cent and the decline may continue in the days or months to come.Near about two hundred thousand stranded expatriate workers who failed to return to their workplaces abroad due to the COVID -19 pandemic are now in dire situations as many have almost no savings and remain neck-deep in debt. Most of them are the lone breadwinner in their family and are currently without any source of income, thus they are now struggling to meet their family expenses. Many are yet to pay off the loans they took on high-interest rates for buying a visa to go aboard. Altogether, the stranded and returnee expatriates will surely create an oppressive situation in the country’s already saturated labour market if the plight continues.
The immediate and near-term economic impact is something that the world has never experienced before, and Bangladesh is not an exception. The COVID-19 has infected millions and bringing economic activity to a near-standstill as countries imposed tight restrictions on movement to halt the spread of the virus. But more or less it is expected to spread at the same alarming speed in the days to come. Therefore, the economic damage is already evident. At the same pace, many governments, semi-government and private companies in the Middle East are also affected. The impact is not yet perceptible because even if employees are laid off, they cannot be sent to their respective countries due to restrictions in air travel. The year 2020 will be a part of the collective memory of the people who lived through it. A pandemic, immeasurable morbidity yet to be realised, close to a billion children out of school and massive unemployment are just a few to mention.
Adding to the existing woes, a substantial number of Bangladeshi workers from the Middle East are expected to return home once air travel is regulated. Be it business or service sectors, Bangladeshis in the Middle East are not yet at the mainstream level. They are rather in the side stream, downstream, midstream to upstream in comparison to other nationalities. Therefore, Bangladeshis are more vulnerable to get laid off in the options of an employer or business competition.
The government already pledged to arrange loans for returnee migrant workers enabling them to pursue viable income activities, particularly in the agriculture sector. The government initiative is commendable but not all the returnee migrant workers are skillful in the agricultural sector. I feel the returnees should be given options to employ their respective skills and choose the sectors to invest in accordance with their interest matching their bona fide skills. Also, their loan must be interest free for the first two years.
In conclusion, I think the Corona pandemic is going to be a lesson for both the Government and jobseekers eyeing the Middle East job market. There is no other alternative for individual workers but to become more skillful. For a nation whose exchequer remains warm by the sweat of migrant workers, we must invest more in the human capital. Keeping the Middle East market in focus, we need to establish more training institutions for resourceful manpower to compete with our rival manpower exporting countries around the world.
The writer is a columnist based in the Middle East