Bangladesh faces the challenge of massive job creation as several lakh migrant workers are likely to return in the coming months following a sharp decline in overseas jobs due to the coronavirus-induced global economic slowdown, experts said.
The majority of Bangladeshi workers in the Gulf and Southeast Asian countries, which host some 80 lakh of the country's more than a crore migrant workers, have been jobless for two to three months, according to Bangladeshi diplomats in those nations.
Undocumented workers, who work on daily basis, are facing more difficulties with no job and zero earnings. They have been depending on food assistance either from the Bangladesh missions or local charities, diplomats and migrants said.
Officials say an estimated 15 percent Bangladeshi migrant workforce could be undocumented. They are the first to get hit by the lockdowns enforced by different countries to check coronavirus contagion.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, and Qatar have already asked Bangladesh and other South Asian countries to take back the migrants in jails and deportation centres. Some of the countries, including Kuwait, have declared amnesty to allow undocumented migrants to return home without penalty.
Over the last few weeks, some 4,000 undocumented Bangladeshis were repatriated from jails and deportation centres in the Middle East, while another 29,000 are expected to return in the coming weeks, according to Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen.
The UAE said the migrants facing job losses in the private sector should be taken back by respective countries, and threatened to review labour relations with the nations that do not comply with the order.
Alarmed by the situation, the government has instructed the Bangladesh missions, mostly in 11 Middle Eastern countries, to begin diplomatic efforts with the host countries so that migrants are not laid off.
If there is no alternative, the governments should make sure that laid-off migrant workers get at least six months' salary. Bangladesh also urged the Organization of Islamic Conference countries to create a fund for the migrant workers.
Foreign Minister Momen also requested non-aligned Movement (NAM) countries, Turkey and India to develop a global consensus to protect migrants amid looming economic slowdown.
"This is a serious issue. We are requesting our friendly countries to help protect migrant workers because they are development partners of both host and sending countries," Momen told The Daily Star.
Economists and Bangladeshi diplomats say response from the global community will depend on the length of the pandemic.
Bangladesh ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Golam Moshi, said the Kingdom has been implementing Saudisation policy replacing the foreigners by locals for the last several years.
Then, the coronavirus pandemic pushed down the oil price in the global market to $20 a barrel in April from $70 in December last year. Thus, the Gulf countries are facing serious budget deficits.
Golam Moshi said around three lakh out of about 20 lakh Bangladeshis in Saudi Arabia are undocumented. Many of them will return, as soon as the flight operations begin.
"If the pandemic comes under control by June, migrants will try to stay and continue to work. If it goes beyond, they will be frustrated and decide to return home in large numbers," said another official of the Bangladesh Embassy in Riyadh.
He told The Daily Star that many of the development projects will go for job cuts and migrants would be the most affected.
Malaysian and Singaporen employers are also considering job cuts and advising their governments to rethink foreign worker recruitment policies.
Malaysian Employers' Federation Executive Director Shamsuddin Bardan recently told the Malaysian media that two million Malaysians, likely to become jobless, could be employed in sectors that recruit foreign workers.
THE WAY FORWARD
Economist Mustafizur Rahman, distinguished fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue, fears that a large number of migrant workers from the Middle East will return home once flight operations begin, as the companies will lay off migrants for cost cutting.
"As migrants will return home and aspirant migrants won't be able to migrate for overseas jobs, it will create huge pressure on the domestic job market," he told The Daily Star.
He noted that every year, some seven lakh out of 20 lakh young people, ready for jobs, go abroad.
To cater to these aspirants and returnee migrants, the government must take up job creation and entrepreneur development programmes, he said.
Agriculture, rural economy, small, medium and cottage industries have more scopes for job creation now, Mustafizur suggested.
However, he warned that fair prices for farmers' produce must be ensured by linking growers with markets and enforcing necessary regulations to encourage the youth to join the sector.
Mustafizur also suggested increased expenditure in infrastructure development to create jobs.
"For example, we have a good rural road network, but most of the roads need repair. This task would require a lot of workforce," Mustafizur said.
The expatriates' welfare ministry said it planned a Tk 200 crore programme for loans to the returnee migrants so they can invest and develop business.
Mustafizur said it's a good plan but the government needs to work on improving the business environment by removing bureaucratic red tape.
The number of people without work in the country would be between 1.30 crore and 1.50 crore, as estimated by independent analysts. This is about five times the official number of unemployed population of 27 lakh as per the latest Labour Force Survey (LFS) 2017.