I was in the seaside city of Cascais in Portugal and like all tourists, after a day of sightseeing, decided to take a walking tour of the city and its marketplace. As we stepped into a gift shop, the sales staff accosted us, and thinking we were Portuguese greeted us with a smile and a friendly “Olá!” I said Ola back to him but then something told me that he was not a native Portuguese. Since my knowledge of Portuguese is limited to hello, thanks, and a few other words, I knew I had to switch to English if I wanted to keep my touristic halo intact and not give away my true intention -- to window shop and just tag along with my wife. But I kept my eyes on the display of trinkets and souvenirs that one finds in any European city -- refrigerator magnets, banners, key rings, etc -- and check their prices since at the end of a few such intrusions I might be able to get a sense of the market.
Within a few seconds my original hypothesis that the two staff, one behind the counter and the other who had greeted me were from Bangladesh, was confirmed. I was surprised that Bangladeshis were a visible presence in this part of Portugal where the language barrier and sluggish economic growth could keep them away from this corner of Europe. Portugal along with Greece had experienced an economic downturn in 2011 and 2012 (Portugal is one of the four countries banded together as PIGS [Portugal. Italy, Greece, Spain]), and I later learned that the economic conditions had forced some Bangladeshis who had Portuguese work permits to move to other more robust economies in the EU, Germany, Denmark and UK (according to some estimates more than half of the documented Bangladeshis).
The Schengen border-free zone, launched by five countries in 1985 and incorporated into the EU in 1997, allows free travel within 13 EU countries (but not Britain or Ireland), plus Norway and Iceland. The minimum wage in Portugal in 2013 was € 556 per month, as compared with € 1,430, € 1,469 and € 1,470 in Belgium, Netherlands, and France, respectively. The monthly wages in both Denmark and Germany are twice these levels. Mr. Shahjahan, who has been in Portugal for more than 10 years and owns two restaurants which serve both Indian and Italian food, indicated that it was hard for him to keep good staff since once they are trained in the art of hospitality, they leave for higher pay or move to another country. He now relies on his family members who provide the backbone of his managerial staff.
Coming back to the proliferation of Bangladeshi small businesses in Portugal, it would be fair to say that they fall under three main categories: small gift shops, convenience stores, and restaurants. These can be found in all major tourist cities including Lisbon, Sintra, Cascais, Porto, and the island of Madeira. What struck me as very encouraging during my conversations with the Bangladeshis, both entrepreneurs and workers, was evidence of hard work they put in and the ability to navigate through the various legal and ever-growing economic tentacles of Eurozone regulations. Some of the business owners who have made major investments in the last few years during the time of greater economic resurgence in Portugal, are bracing for a few more months of economic doldrums and slower tourism business during the winter months. Lay-offs, shortened working hours, and dipping into savings are some of traditional survival methods. I actually met two couples, which established businesses, who were planning a trip to Bangladesh during the slow winter months and leave the staff in charge.
Bangladesh has a small mission in Lisbon which opened in 2012, but started full-fledged operations in 2013. I met with Mr. Imtiaz Ahmed, Ambassador of Bangladesh to Portugal, who was very kind to mention the efforts of the Embassy to increase trade between Bangladesh and Portugal. He pointed out that Bangladesh participated in the Diplomatic Bazaar held on November 21-22 in Lisbon. Bangladesh Embassy Stall drew many visitors, including the First Lady of Portugal, Maria Silva, who was presented with books on our culture and economy. Finally, he mentioned two areas where Bangladesh might be able to expand exports to Portugal: fashion garments and knitwear. Portugal is very fashion conscious and draws tourists from around the world because of its history, culture and beaches. For Bangladesh, it provides an opportunity to strengthen our bilateral relationships.
The writer is an economist who writes frequently on global economic issues.