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OP-ED: An overlooked people

  • Published at 04:11 pm June 13th, 2020

We need to raise our voice to protect our migrants in the wake of Covid-19

As estimated, amid a slump with a loss of about $6 billion in export earnings primarily through RMG, the next big shock for the economy of Bangladesh will be its remittance inflow, which is considered the life-line for many rural families. The Bangladesh Bank’s data in March 2020 shows a clear significant downturn -- 11.83% less than March 2019. 

We are already informed that many of our workers in different countries have started losing their jobs, and more people will lose their jobs in the coming months. Along with the documented labourers, there are also a large number of undocumented labourers in Europe and other regions who will be severely impacted due to the pandemic. The most affected industry of this crisis would be the service sector of those countries, where Bangladeshi migrant workers are mostly engaged. 

It is important to mention that remittance, as a tangible outcome of overseas employment, has positioned itself as the second-highest foreign exchange earning source (around 40%) after the garments sector in Bangladesh. The remittance inflow hit a record $18.32 billion in 2019 amidst the devaluation of the taka and the government move to provide incentives against remittance, and it grew by 17.89% against $15.54 billion in 2018. 

It makes up around 6-8% of the country’s total GDP, and renders a sizeable contribution to national income, macroeconomic stability, and poverty reduction. Data shows that at least around one-third of the country’s new labour force takes overseas employment each year -- which has become a “safety valve” for millions of Bangladeshi migrant workers and their families.

According to BMET, around 60,000 Bangladeshis go abroad for occupation every month. So, if the Covid-19 pandemic lingers, queues of those waiting to join overseas will grow further. Also, there is no guarantee whether all the migrants who returned in the last three months can go back to their respective countries or not. According to BAIRA, about 1.5-2 lakh migrant workers had completed the process for overseas jobs in the last three months and were waiting to leave the country. Not only this, the Covid-19 crisis in the wealthier economies will also restrict our future job markets.

Overseas migration and its contribution to the economy

For the last few decades, overseas migration has been a cornerstone of our economy and society. More than 10 million Bangladeshi nationals have so far migrated overseas for employment and dispersed themselves across 160 countries covering all the major continents and regions. 

Migration plays a pivotal role in the economy of Bangladesh in two major ways: Firstly, it reduces unemployment and secondly, migration greatly affects the remittance inflow. Data shows that, besides some periodical downswings, remittance inflow has increased every year. 

Our overseas employment represents over one-fifth of our annual addition to the country’s total labour force and over half of the additional manufacturing jobs created in recent years. Migration also has a very substantial contribution towards the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Bangladesh. 

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, it was estimated that overseas workers’ migration would increase by 1.5 times in the next decade as it was almost 1 million a year for the last few years. But now the situation will most certainly be reversed. Bangladeshi migrant-heavy countries, especially Italy, Spain, France, Germany, the UK, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Dubai, Malaysia, and Singapore have been hit by the pandemic. The Covid-19 situation in the US will definitely also affect our labour markets and significantly reduce our remittance inflow.

Through an anthropological lens

For the last few years, I have been teaching courses on “Migration and Diaspora” and have undertaken research in related issues. Through these and attending seminars and conferences, I have established very friendly relations with some Bangladeshi migrant workers across Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Most of my contacts are either “semi-skilled” or “unskilled” migrants, working as restaurant and shop assistants, shop owners, cleaners, chefs, taxi drivers, salesmen/sales executives/managers, etc. 

These migrant workers mostly belong to the 25-50 age range and are living in different countries without their families. Some of my contact migrants don’t have legal immigration papers and have not visited home for 5-10 years. I have heard many stories of their deadly journeys to their current destinations, spending upwards of Tk15 lakh to wage through the toughest of routes to find occupations abroad. 

I know some of them have submitted their applications for legal status and are waiting for their papers, while others are engaged in secured jobs and businesses with legal immigration status and are able to visit home every 2-3 years. I have also been in contact with migrants who have come to Bangladesh in the last three months. A couple of these migrants underwent quarantine at the Ashkona camp, or are now in quarantine and isolation in different districts across the country. 

As an anthropologist, I have seen the wide range of non-humanitarian and adverse behaviour shown to our returnee migrants by their family members, community people, local administration, and medical service providers. 

I have seen at what level that has socially stigmatized and psychologically traumatized our migrant workers (whom RMMRU termed as “Sonar Manush”), as if they are the sole transmitters of the virus that is Covid-19. 

Furthermore, we have observed how those on social media have blamed our migrants for bringing coronavirus to Bangladesh from abroad and this has increased humiliation, physical assaults, and bullying of migrants across the country. Even in many places, the administration and other local social bodies have isolated and quarantined the migrants with a very harsh attitude and finally locked them down in their houses by flying red flags. In some places, it has resulted in the hiding of many migrants from their near and dear ones by avoiding testing, and getting mentally depressed.

Protecting the ‘Sonar Manush’

In recent times, we have seen much hue and cry from our RMG sector upon having the shock of Covid-19 in terms of cancellation of existing orders, expecting less order in the future and the loss in jobs of about 2 million workers among others. According to the BGMEA, Bangladesh earned more than $34 billion in 2018-19, of which $22 billion worth of RMG products were exported to the US, the UK, Spain, France, Italy, and Germany. 

Seeing the crisis of our export sector, the government declared a large bailout fund with special focus on the RMG sector as it is one of the largest employing (mostly female) and foreign currency earning sectors. Like the RMG sector, the government should also allocate a fund to give necessary protection to our more than 10 million overseas migrant workers who are always working hard to send back remittance and to strengthen our economy. 

According to BMET, Bangladesh receives almost one third of its remittance (more than $5 billion) from the six countries mentioned above, while the Middle East is home to almost half of our total migrant workers and provides the highest amount of remittance. According to IOM, millions of migrant workers left the most affected countries such as the US, the UK, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Singapore, Malaysia, UAE and Saudi Arabia when the lockdown was announced and many more will return once normalcy comes again. 

Experts say that Bangladesh will be one of the most affected countries among all the top-remittance receiving countries due to the severe effects of Covid-19 in migrants’ working countries.

Actions for ‘bailing out’

As an immediate action, our embassy in all the countries should collect information about our affected migrants, so that they can be supported in various ways. They should provide food, accommodation, and medicine to the affected (both documented and undocumented) people. Necessary support should be given to the families of those migrants who are dying in different countries. The government should immediately establish contact with our workers and ensure all the necessary support to keep them safe. Vulnerable families, who depend on migrants’ earnings, should be identified and given necessary social protection. 

To bailout from this crisis:

  • The government should be in touch with all countries where there is a strong presence of our migrant labour force to continue the recruitment as part of their help and as a symbol of solidarity. The government should also bargain with the respective countries to take back our stranded workers, and in any adverse situation, request for compensation
  • More bilateral discussions with the less-affected migrant-receiving countries are required for the sustenance of the present labour market as well as opening of new labour markets
  • More attention has to be given to create new job markets in comparatively less-affected countries considering their bailout strategies and GDP growth and also try to understand what type of new skills will be more required in the post-Covid situation in the most affected migrant prone countries
  • Need to explore some new skills that will be required in the post Covid-19 situation to compete with many of our neighboring countries and take necessary steps to provide the required training on the new areas, including providing doctors, nurses, micro-biologists, community health workers, and micro-enterprisers. Further attention is also required to create new jobs for the returnee migrants by looking at their skills and circumstances
  • We need to work out a strategy in consultation with our experts from different government and non-government agencies and institutions to cope with the present fragile overseas labour markets, especially considering our competitors such as India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, China, Nepal, and others.

Finally, I would like to say that knowing about the impact of Covid-19 on our garment sector, we have already raised our voice but now we need to raise our voice to protect our migrants. We should give equal attention to our RMG and Remittance (2R) to save our economy. Both these labour-heavy sectors are the lifelines of our economy, especially the rural household economy. 

More than 10 million migrant workers are the bread earners of another 10 million families. Both returned migrants and the migrants abroad are now serious victims of Covid-19. They will have to face more challenges even after the withdrawal of the lockdown and the eventual resuming of flights in the most affected migrant-prone countries. More migrants will have to come back due to loss of jobs. 

Therefore, an immediate action plan considering the allocation of enough funds is the very least our “sonar manush” deserve. We must take immediate steps to develop an inclusive, equitable, and people-centered sustainable action plan to socially and economically (by giving easy access to loan and other necessary financial benefits and supports) reintegrate our returned migrants as well as to stimulate the process of re-migration to the countries based on their new requirement with necessary further re-skilling and skill development training. 

Professor Saifur Rashid Teaches Anthropology at Dhaka University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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