Pandemic-hit migrants seek local work as loans mount
When Hamida Parvin returned home to Bangladesh for a month's holiday from her job as a nanny in Qatar last February, she was excited to see her 17-year-old son after a year apart.
But the COVID-19 crisis suddenly escalated, flights were cancelled and Parvin's holiday joy soon became a nightmare "scramble for survival" as she scoured for ways to ensure her family had enough to eat and a roof over their heads.
"I went mad looking for jobs ... nobody was hiring," the 35-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at a small cafe in Dhaka, where she works as a chef -- the family's main source of income as her diabetic husband is often unwell.
"My husband is sick and he can't work for long hours, so my savings went down to zero. Despite working for so many years, I am not sure if I can even pay the 7,000 taka ($82.50) fee that my son needs to sit for his upcoming school exams," she said.
The cafe in the corner of a training centre for migrant workers seats about a dozen people. It is run by the Bangladesh Nari Sramik Kendra, a women's rights group that employs women who lost their jobs abroad due to the pandemic.
Parvin fries samosas and puris for breakfast and cooks rice, fish and chicken for lunch for Bangladeshis learning to speak Arabic or fix motors before applying for a job abroad.
"The NGO started this women's cafe to give us a livelihood and also to train us to become better entrepreneurs," said Parvin, the walls behind her dotted with colourful charts with tips on business and how to become financially resilient. "I follow what they say and I don't think I have disappointed any of my customers so far."
She earns 7,000 taka a month -- less than a third of what she earned in Qatar -- but considers herself lucky to have a job as one of some 400,000 migrants who returned to Bangladesh during the pandemic, many without receiving their full wages.
Prior to the pandemic, nearly 700,000 Bangladeshis got jobs abroad every year, but that fell to about 215,000 last year according to government data.
'DRIVING ME INSANE'
For jobseekers trapped at home, the situation has been dire.
Bangladesh's garment factories, which account for nearly 80% of exports, have been hard-hit by store closures in Western countries battling high coronavirus infection rates.
As fashion brands cancelled their orders, thousands of garment workers lost their jobs in Bangladesh, the world's second largest clothes supplier. A recent uptick in order hints at a recovery but work remains scarce and debts are mounting.
After losing her job as a junior worker at a Dhaka garment factory a year ago, Fatima Khatun returned to her village in southern Bangladesh and found work packing crabs for export. But the 22-year-old was laid off after three months due to low exports. Unemployed since October, Fatima and her parents and three siblings had to cut down on food to survive.
"We don't have enough money. Now we eat meat just once a month. We rarely buy fish and mostly rely on vegetables," she said.
University student Masum Billah, 23, is in a similar predicament after losing his job in a Dhaka factory that exported bags last year. Masum relied on his salary to buy medicine for his mother who suffers from a skin disease and to fund his degree.
Now back in his village in southern Bangladesh, he is looking for employment in a nearby town. "I have taken a loan to pay for my mother's medicines ... but I don't know how I'll pay my university fees," he said. "The situation is driving me insane."
Debts are a major worry for returning migrants as well. Nearly 70% of migrants who returned home during the pandemic were unemployed and 55% were in debt in August, according to a survey of some 1,200 returnees by the UN migration agency IOM.
While a follow-up survey this month saw a fall in unemployment to 64%, household debt had increased by 13% and migrants reported borrowing more money to pay back loans.
"Before coronavirus, both my husband and I had jobs. We were content. But things have changed a lot," said Shahnaz Begum, who flew back from Saudi Arabia last April after her contract as a housemaid ended.
Her husband, who works as a painter in the construction industry and gets paid per job, also experienced a drop in income during the pandemic as most projects were put on hold.
"Middle-class families like ours were too ashamed to beg for money and that's why we were worse affected (than poorer families) during the lockdown in April," Shahnaz said. "There were many days when I didn't eat just so that my children could."
Shahnaz, who now earns 300 taka a day stitching masks for three to five days a week, had to take multiple loans from charities totalling 165,000 taka last year to survive.
She earns less than half of what she used to make in Saudi Arabia and the work is not regular. At this rate, she estimates it could take six years to pay back the money she has borrowed.
"We are constantly worried about these loans and the future of our two children," said Shahnaz, adding that she is keen to return to the Middle East as soon as possible, with a few countries, like Saudi Arabia, starting to recruiting workers.
In a bid to support destitute returnees, the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment offered low interest loans last April to help migrants set up businesses, but the scheme has been slow to take off.
When the pandemic forced cook and father-of-three Mohammad Kamruzzaman, 43, to return home from Kuwait, he applied for a 200,000 taka loan in July to open a small shop.
"It would have been good had I received the money soon after I arrived," he said, standing in front of the tin and bamboo stall in outer Dhaka where he sells food, tea and cigarettes to locals, earning about 400 taka a day.
"But they needed a trade licence and many other documents which I couldn't immediately provide," he said, adding that the delay meant he had to borrow the money from a charity until the government money finally arrived in February. "I had to use one loan to pay back the other," he said.
Although disbursement of loans was slow initially, the rate has picked up and many migrants are now receiving loans, said Shamsul Alam, a senior officer at the Ministry of Expatriates.
"Many migrants I spoke to say that they either don't know the steps to avail the government loan or that they find it hard to meet the requirements," said Shakirul Islam, head of the migrants' rights group Ovibashi Karmi Unnayon Program. "There needs to be more awareness on this."
Despite the difficulty he faced getting the business started, Kamruzzaman said he was happy with his new life. He also grows eggplants, melons and tomatoes on a plot of land belonging to a friend, and hopes to cash in by selling them at a good price during Ramadan (in April) when demand is high.
"If this investment works out, I don't think I'll be returning to the Middle East. I am old now and I want to spend some time with my family," he said.
But Parvin's cafe job is too poorly paid to allow her to stay in Bangladesh with her teenage son and unwell husband. She is looking for a new job in the Middle East via recruitment agencies and want to fly back as soon as possible.
"My monthly salary in Qatar was 25,000 taka," she said. "I will never be able to earn that much with my educational background over here."