The Middle East-bound Bangladeshi workers are finding themselves in a tight spot as they have to pay more than double the airfare which is adding to the already high cost of migration.
The rise in airfare stemmed from suspension of flights from Bangladesh by four airlines -- Etihad Airways, Oman Air and Fly Dubai last year and Jet Airways recently, say international recruiting and travel agents.
The increase in the number of Umrah passengers since February this year also contributed to the airfare hike, they mention.
“Just one month back, airfare for Saudi Arabia-bound passengers from Dhaka was around Tk 20,000 [one way]. Now it has shot up to over Tk 50,000,” said Shameem Ahmed Chowdhury Noman, secretary general of Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira).
This is creating uncertainty for many overseas jobseekers, he said.
Giving an example, Shameem said he has to send 15 workers to Saudi Arabia as soon as possible. Their employer yesterday asked him to send them by tomorrow.
The employer has threatened to cancel their visas if they don't arrive there by that time, he told The Daily Star at the Baira office in the capital yesterday.
“If I want to send them by Thursday, they will have to pay additional costs. But if they don't agree, I will have to incur losses,” he said.
Several Middle East-bound workers spoke of their troubles to this correspondent.
Abdulla bin Saleh from Noakhali's Senbagh upazila said he has Saudi visa, but the recruiting agent is saying that there is a shortage of air tickets.
“I was supposed to fly a week back. But I am not sure when I can do so,” the 24-year-old migrant worker said last night.
According to industry insiders, some 4,500 passengers used to fly to Middle Eastern countries by 45 flights from Dhaka every day before the four airlines suspended their operations. Now the number has come down to around 4,000 due to flight shortage.
“In recent weeks, the number of Umrah pilgrims has gone up. Almost 30 percent passengers of our flights are now flying to Saudi Arabia for Umrah,” said a high official of a private airline that operates flights from Bangladesh to Middle Eastern countries.
Baira's Member Welfare Secretary Kafil Uddin Majumder claimed that a section of travel agents are hiking the airfare, taking advantage of the flight shortage.
Emdad Ullah, executive vice-president of the Association of Travel Agents of Bangladesh (Atab), too said some travel agents are involved with “a syndicate” that is increasing the airfare.
“We have already written to the Prime Minister's Office about this,” he told The Daily Star.
As the number of Umrah pilgrims is likely to go up in the month of Ramadan, there is a fear that the airfare would increase further if the government does not intervene immediately, noted Emdad.
Bangladesh Biman could raise the number of flights to the Middle East, the major overseas labour market with some 50 lakh to 60 lakh Bangladeshis working in the region, he said.
The government could also allow foreign airlines to operate more flights to the Middle East as long as required, added the Atab executive vice-president.
Baira Secretary General Shameem said the demand for domestic workers goes up in the Middle East during Ramadan. If the jobseekers cannot be sent there timely, it will affect the overseas job sector from which Bangladesh earns around $15 billion a year.
Of around 25,000 Bangladeshis flying abroad for jobs every day, some 2,000 are going to the Middle Eastern countries.
“We have written to both the civil aviation and the expatriates' welfare ministries, requesting them to address the situation. But we have not yet got any reply,” he mentioned.
Contacted, Mohibul Haque, secretary at the civil aviation and tourism ministry, said there is no scope for any travel agents to artificially increase airfares.
“There is no scope for such monopoly. One must provide his or her name and passport's information to book a ticket … Once a ticket is sold, it cannot be resold to others. Only dates and time can be changed,” the secretary told The Daily Star over the phone.
In reply to a query, he said national flag carrier Biman has not increased its airfares.
He further said the civil aviation ministry has already permitted the Emirates to operate one more flight to Dubai from Dhaka every day.
The airline now operates three flights a day.