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OP-ED: A crisis within a crisis

  • Published at 01:58 pm July 14th, 2020
Migrant workers
File photo Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

The plight of returnee migrant workers continues amidst the pandemic

With the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the global job market, millions of Bangladeshi migrant workers are facing job layoffs, and will be forced to return home in the coming months. The first wave of returnee migrants arrived from China and Italy in February and March, shortly before the WHO declared Covid-19 a “global pandemic.” 

Not long after, tens of thousands more arrived from the Middle Eastern countries and Southeast Asia. Most of these workers performed skilled and semi-skilled jobs such as the work of masons, plumbers, carpenters, drivers, house-helpers, gardeners, cleaners, and vendors. 

This continuous influx of returnees poses a seismic challenge to Bangladesh’s labour market, which is already contending with millions of local workers who have lost their jobs. Many returnees do not have sufficient savings or employment benefits, and are saddled with crippling debts accumulated to finance their initial migration costs. 

Many also have unpaid/unsettled wages which they are unable to remit. These returnee migrants are trapped in “a crisis within a crisis.” They and their families were caught off-guard by the sudden job losses and loss of remittances. According to the World Bank, the ongoing Covid-19 crisis will reduce the flow of remittances to Bangladesh by 25%, to $14 billion for 2020. 

This slump will represent a significant loss to millions of households in Bangladesh, and risks pushing millions of families deeper into poverty. Many of these once-proud wage earners are now fighting depression as they wrestle with unemployment and poverty. They need support to improve their psychosocial well-being as well as facilitate their reintegration into society. 

The Skills 21 Project is working to help reintegrate these returnee migrants, particularly those who have strong skills and experience. A number of TVET Institutes, for example, are creating market linkages and introducing skills training and certification for a number of in-demand occupations. 

In collaboration with the IOM, the Skills 21 Project is further addressing the needs of returnee migrants by working on a sustainable and scaleable reintegration of workers domestically through upskilling, retraining, skills recognition, and job placement. The Skills 21 Project is also looking at the provision of skills and enterprise development for sectors that are likely to rebound soon, such as health care, pharmaceuticals, IT, retail, and agro-food processing. 

The focus will be on restoring the supply chain and upgrading the value chain to create more jobs and more self-employment opportunities. The scheme will work by assessing the level of a worker’s skills, the status of their certification, and their investment potential to start small or medium-enterprises. 

The Covid-19 crisis leaves the government, development partners, and civil society with few options; action is needed, and it is needed quickly. It is imperative that all stakeholders come together in a “whole of government” and a “whole of society” approach. The lives and livelihoods of millions are literally at stake, and only collective action can resolve this crisis. The skills sector offers a number of stable, long-term solutions. 

Ligaya Dumaoang is a Specialist, TVET and Skills Development, Skills 21 Project, International Labour Organization, Bangladesh.

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