When coronavirus spread in the Middle Eastern countries and other destinations of Bangladeshi migrants, their incomes dropped drastically, causing Bangladesh to lose a large share of remittance
Abdullah, the father of a three-year-old kid, went to Singapore three years ago to work in the construction industry. For his farmer family, managing the huge amount of money that it took to go to the Southeast Asian country was not easy.
Having worked three years in Singapore, Abdullah was upbeat about a good future. But on April 12, his life came to a grinding halt as he tested positive for coronavirus.
During the month of hospitalisation in Singapore, he fought well. Also, thanks to the Singaporean government, he did not have to pay for his treatment.
But right after being released from the hospital, Abdullah got allergies for which his employer informed him that the government was not going to pay for medications anymore.
Abdullah's income has already dropped to half of what he used to earn before the pandemic as construction work has slowed down and the opportunity form overtime earnings has disappeared. He is now terrified about his impending medication bill.
Healthcare is very expensive in Singapore if the government is not paying your bills.
However, it is not only Abdullah who is worried about the future. He is one of the millions of Bangladeshi migrant workers - the backbone of the country's economy - who are similarly concerned.
When coronavirus spread in the Middle Eastern countries and other destinations of Bangladeshi migrants, their incomes dropped drastically. Bangladesh is losing a large share of remittance and GDP as a result.
According to the Bangladesh Bank sources, between January and April this year, expatriates sent less than $550 crore in remittance. During the same period last year, the amount was more than $580 crore.
In comparison with last year, remittance began to fall sharply in March as per the Bangladesh Bank data. Whereas in March and April last year, Bangladesh received $145 crore and $143 crore respectively, the country received only $127 crore and $108 crore this March and April.
According to a Dhaka School of Economics study, the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic has caused suspension of many construction projects in Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, which is a major source of remittance for Bangladesh.
In some cases, the authorities in Saudi Arabia have decided to cut wages by about 25-50 percent due to global lockdowns resulting in stagnation of economic activities. As a result, many Bangladeshi migrants in the oil-rich country have found half of their incomes vanished as lockdown drags on.
Tahsin Shakil in Saudi Arabia is one of them. He said, "My company paid half the salary for April and I do not know what May holds for us."
Stories of pay cuts and layoffs are abundant in Saudi Arabia and this is impacting the livelihoods of Bangladeshi migrants, added Tahsin.
Earlier in April, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund made alarming forecasts of our impending economic slump, saying GDP growth may come down to two to three percent due to the impact of the pandemic this year.
The remittance, however, being one of the worst-hit sectors, may lose about $3,440.10 million in the financial year 2020-21, according to the Dhaka School of Economics study based on IMF projections. This is a 16 to 17 percent loss in remittance inflow in the above-mentioned years for the country.
Shariful Hasan, head of Brac Migration programme, pointed out three major reasons behind the present crisis.
Firstly, in the early stage of the pandemic in February, around 200,000 expatriates returned to Bangladesh from various countries on leave. Now that time is going by and there is no sign that the crisis will end anytime soon, many of them are losing their jobs and incomes.
Rafi, an expatriate in Malaysia, returned home on leave in February. But he is unable to go back as airline companies have not yet resumed operations.
"If flights resume by June 10, I will be able to return. Otherwise, I will be in a huge crisis as all my savings have almost dried up," Rafi said.
Secondly, around 50,000-60,000 people used to go abroad each month before the pandemic. But from February until May, at least 200,000 workers could not go.
Thirdly, around 10 million expatriates are working in various countries around the world. Only two percent of this massive workforce are skilled professionals, the rest work in informal sectors. Many of these workers are losing their jobs, while some are not receiving salaries and cannot earn what they used to in the pre-pandemic period.
Mohammad Ali is one such expatriate in Singapore who comes from the same village of Rajbari district where Abdullah is from. Ali has lived and worked in Singapore for around four years on and off.
"Each time I went there, my luck did not favour me. The companies I worked at did not pay me well. My basic salary was low and the opportunities for overtime earnings – which constitute a major part of our income – were very limited."
Ali tried for three years to get a job at a company where his elder brother works. The company pays well and has a reputation for providing ample opportunities for overtime earnings.
His dream finally came true in February when he got the job, but his happiness lasted for less than two months.
"Since the end of March, my brother and I remain isolated in a hotel with other colleagues. As a result, my income dropped by more than half as overtime earnings stopped," Ali said.
As the Singaporean government locked down the whole country to curb coronavirus transmission, the extra earning sources of unskilled Bangladeshi migrants disappeared. However, interestingly in May, according to the Bangladesh Bank sources, remittance increased in comparison with March and April as the country received around $62 crore in the first two weeks.
When asked if this signals a breakthrough for the remittance market, Brac's Shariful said, "This rise in May is not actually a growth story. It is because Eid is nearing. People sent money from whatever savings they had and by other means like loans."
"Besides, many solvent expatriates are sending help during the month of Ramadan. So, we may not see continuation of this sudden growth in June or July."
For more than five years, Karim Mia worked at Al Faoz – one of Saudi Arabia's largest construction companies – as a support worker. It was a well-paid job that changed his life. He got married three years ago, and is now the father of a one-and-a-half-year-old son.
In a bid to change the future of his younger brother Kabir Mia, Karim brought him to Saudi Arabia recently and helped him get a job in another construction company. The brothers were doing fine except when Kabir was laid off last month. Karim too was retrenched last week.
With both brothers out of work in these days of coronavirus, their families are now in an unprecedented crisis.
Brac's Shariful believes that the coronavirus crisis is here for a long time and it will consequently have a long-term effect on the remittance market if adequate measures are not taken.
First of all, Bangladesh needs to ensure that "we are aligned with the rest of the world," he said.
"When countries like Saudi Arabia and Singapore declare themselves free of coronavirus, they will begin to hire again. But if we have even a single case in our land at the time, the host nations may not be interested in hiring our people," explained Shariful.
"Suppose a host country's situation improves in September but we still have cases. In that case, they will not take our people."
Secondly, the Bangladesh government has already declared a Tk500 crore stimulus package for helping migrants. This money should be expended in reintegration programmes.
"If any expatriate fails to re-integrate into the job market in the post-coronavirus world, the government has to make sure that they are rehabilitated and properly taken care of," Shariful said.
Finally, the government will need to take a smart diplomatic approach abroad so that the host countries ensure that the laid-off Bangladeshis are re-hired immediately after the condition returns to normalcy.
"Besides, searching for alternative markets is also a must," added Shariful.
Nazrul Islam, an associate professor at Dhaka School of Economics, opines the same about exploring new labour markets. But he empathized that "skilled migration needs to be given top priority".
"A skilled labour is more resilient against economic recession or turmoil," added Nazrul Islam.