The world watched in paralysed horror as oil prices plummeted to below zero: the price of West Texas Intermediate oil grade went negative to –USD 37.63 per barrel (pb), for the first time in history. The shock of the collapse was intense, leading to traders naming the day "Black Monday".
Although this fall is related to US Texas crude oil for May contracts only, and prices of future contracts are still comparatively higher, this collapse was ominous for oil producing countries including the Gulf states and Russia, who have been scrambling for months in the wake of Covid-19 to find a way to keep oil prices stabilised. The reverberations of this fall are going to be felt intensely across the globe, including in Bangladesh.
For a net importer of oil such as Bangladesh, where the government has to pay large subsidies for this import, falling prices of oil might be, on occasions, seen as a respite. However, on the whole, any high or low in prices of oil worldwide—that can destabilise the commodity market—can have disastrous consequences, including for net importers.
Producer nations, especially the Gulf states, face major economic problems, including the risk of turning into debtors. For instance, even before the collapse of oil prices, Riyadh-based Jadwa Investment Company predicted that the Saudi budget will mark a deficit of 422 billion riyals—40 percent of the country's budget and 15.7 percent of its GDP. With price of oil crashing, one can only assume what implications the negative figures will have on the Saudi economy now.
For us, the challenge is on a different front: What will happen to our migrant workers? Since the outbreak of Covid-19, many migrant workers have had to return to Bangladesh. And we cannot say for certain when these migrant workers can go back to their destination countries to resume work, or if at all, in the foreseeable future. What is even more alarming is the possibility of more migrant workers returning home from the Middle East—especially those working in the construction sector—in the aftermath of the oil price collapse.
Bangladeshi workers in the Middle East are mostly engaged in construction, transportation services, hospitality, security services, household services and so on. The fear is—if oil prices remain unstable, in the face of mounting economic challenges, the oil producing countries will have to pull the plug on many of their projects, which includes construction. According to an article by David Hearst, the editor in chief of Middle East Eye, the "Saudi's economy was already struggling before coronavirus took hold with a growth rate of just 0.3 percent and a drop of 25 percent in construction since 2017." With the Covid-19 situation wreaking havoc on the global economy, the situation might deteriorate in the days and months to come.
So, if let's say major construction work is halted in the Gulf countries due to a tightening of their belts as a result of coronavirus and now the oil price collapse, what happens to our migrant workers working in these countries? Of course, the possibility of them being laid off and sent back to Bangladesh cannot be ruled out—already, the Bangladesh mission in Saudi Arabia has announced that the coronavirus fallout and slumping oil prices may lead to the deportation of up to 10 lakh Bangladeshi migrant workers in the next three to five years.
If this comes to pass, it will be a big blow for our economy, whose sustained growth in all these years has been heavily reliant on strong export earnings from the RMG sector and the heavy flow of remittances, thanks to our migrant workers working in various countries abroad. At present, both are already under stress: RMG factories are losing orders, and according to data from Bangladesh Bank, earlier in March this year, Bangladesh's remittance inflow fell by around 12 percent year-on-year, the collateral damage of Covid-19. The employment of migrant workers who have returned home also remains a big worry. According to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training, around 80 lakh Bangladeshis work in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and other Middle Eastern countries.
If more migrant workers are sent back home due to job loss abroad, Bangladesh will be scrambling to find ways to support them at home. One major problem will be absorbing them into the economy or sending them to other destination countries, since it is the semi-skilled or unskilled workers who might be affected most.
And without jobs or some form of government support, how are these former migrant workers going to support themselves and their families, especially those who haven't been able to work abroad for long enough to make some savings or even recover the fee they had to pay when going abroad?
Earlier, the Asian Development Bank suggested that the USD 300 billion-plus Bangladesh economy could lose USD 3.02 billion in a worst-case Covid-19 outbreak scenario. This would mean a loss of 894,930 jobs, according to their March estimates. With 1.38 crore people underemployed and potential new cases of unemployment, helping former migrant workers find sustainable earning solutions will be difficult.
The Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program has already requested the government to announce a social safety net programme for the families of migrant workers who have returned home, or are not being paid their wages in their destination countries due to the Covid-19 lockdown. But with the government already rolling out multiple stimulus packages to address the needs of the people who are engaged in the informal sector— around 87 percent of our workforce—which has been hit hard by the pandemic, it remains to be seen how much it can do to support migrant workers and their families.
According to Zahid Hussain, former Lead Economist at the World Bank, the government can, for now, tap into the Wage Earners' Welfare Fund (WEWF), which according to the International Labour Organization is a "a single trust fund pooled from the mandatory membership contributions of migrant workers, investment and interest income on these funds, and income from other sources" to support the workers who are in need of immediate assistance. Most of the migrant workers and their families do not fall below the poverty line, and for now have they might have the means to tide themselves over. This is especially true for those migrant workers who have been working abroad for many years, but there are also others who have not been able to recover the money that they paid to get the jobs abroad.
Zahid Hussain suggests that the government identify these workers and their families and provide them with support through the WEWF, which otherwise is only used for taking "measures to bring back the dead bodies of the migrant workers and extend financial aid to the families of the deceased workers, take care of afflicted migrant workers, provide scholarships to the children of migrant workers through Wage Earners' Welfare Fund and to undertake other welfare activities for the migrant workers," according to information on the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare & Overseas Employment on a government website. And only to supplement this measure, if deemed appropriate, the government can later draw from the budget under social safety net programmes.
The more than 10 million Bangladeshi migrant workers, who toil day and night, often living in sub-human conditions, far away from their loved ones, remitted USD 18.32 billion to Bangladesh last year. While we often refuse to sit next to them in airplanes or at least feel ashamed of their "uncouth" behaviour, and even questioned the government's wisdom in bringing them back to Bangladesh in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, it is these workers whose hard earned money boosts our foreign exchange reserve, enabling us to lead better, more comfortable lives. If there ever was a time to give back to these people, it is now.
These migrant workers and their families right now need our help, and the government can come forward in this, as it has done for the other sectors, by utilising the WEWF. The question remains, is the government willing to come to the aid of migrant workers, especially those in need of immediate support?
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem.