Plight of Migrant Workers against the Backdrop of Covid-19 -Tahmid Muhtadi
In the twenty-first century, people are constantly being confronted with new situations and ideas. The corona pandemic is the most worrisome of that which has come as a curse on the earth. Although the ‘Reverse Migration’ is already in vogue,but amidst pandemic it got a new dimension. Reverse migration is the complete opposite of conventional migration. Due to the impact of Corona, job opportunities in developed world have shrunk, so most of them are reluctant to keep workers of third world countries. As a result, all these professionals are being forced to return to their home. Another form of this type of migration is the return of lower and lower middle class people to their villages due to the imposition of lockdown in urban areas.
Image of workers returning to Bangladesh
The picture of the return of workers to Bangladesh is basically divided into two parts. First, the image of the return of workers working abroad who are considered as the manpower of Bangladesh. A large number of migrant workers have reportedly returned to their village homes after losing their jobs abroad. More than 1.20 crore Bangladeshi migrant workers were working in 160 countries of the world. Most of the developed countries are not interested in keeping these workers from third world countries due to the acute outbreak of corona in the world. As a result, from April 1 to the beginning of October, 209,345 migrant workers returned to the country, including 22,937 women, according to the Ministry of Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment. Some have lost their jobs and returned to the country as their Iqama (valid work permit) has expired.
Second, the image of lower and lower middle class people returning from rural to urban areas to take advantage of various opportunities. Most of the people who have lost their income in whole or in part have been forced to return to their villages. The economic activities of Bangladesh are mainly Dhaka-centric. But as corona outbreaks and lockdowns across the country have reduced funding opportunities, workers are returning to their villages in droves. It is not just the working class people who are going back to the village. Different organizations are cutting different levels of staff to reduce their expenses, as a result of which these lower class, lower middle class and middle class people are suddenly losing their jobs and going home.
Economic impact of repatriation of expatriate workers
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 10 million Bangladeshis were working as migrant in various countries around the world, especially in the Persian Gulf. In 2019, they sent about 15 billion euros worth of foreign exchange to the country. The most striking thing is that Bangladesh has not yet faced any adverse situation in remittances or foreign exchange earnings in Corona. Corona earned a record of 8.71 billion in foreign exchange earnings between July and September, up 46.57% from the same quarter last year. This flow of remittances is still high enough. According to experts, workers are returning all their savings to the country, keeping in mind the uncertainty of returning to work.
But the sad thing is that with the migration of a significant number of workers and the sharp fall in the income of migrant workers, it is expected that workers will face huge financial crisis in the coming days. An average migrant worker bears the expenses of three family members. But 70 per cent of the workers have returned to the country and are facing unemployment, leaving family members under pressure to provide food, clothing and medical care. 55% of workers are burdened with debt. Many of them now do not have the financial means to ensure proper treatment if they or someone in their family is infected with the coronavirus.
The economic impact of the return of workers from town to village
Since the first case of covid was identified on March 7, an estimated 15,000 families have left Dhaka for rural areas due to lack of work or loss of work. A study by the South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (SANEM) in May found that while such migration has no immediate adverse effects on the country, it can double the poverty rate from 20.5% to 40.9% over time.
Those who went to the city due to lack of employment opportunities in the local market are coming back, putting pressure on the local labor market. Experts say that in many cases, the income of people working in the informal economic sector in urban and rural areas has fallen by as much as 70%.
The negative side of such retrograde migration from city to village is acute. Due to declining population density in big cities, life is normal but in rural areas there is a lack of employment opportunities for families. Although the money earned from the city is sent to the village, a small part of it is invested by the people in different areas of the city. As a result, the new level created in the demand curve is gradually being lost in the current situation. Consumer level analysis shows that such people returning from the city to their home area (Internally Displaced People: IDP) were a part of the informal economic system. Due to their share in the consumption chain, they also contributed indirectly to the FMCG (Fast-moving Consumer Goods: FMCG) industry, creating a link between the formal and informal sectors. But now this reverse migration has led to a crisis of money flow in various sectors through this industry.
Return and impact of women workers
Most of the people who come to the city from the villages in search of work are involved in the informal sector. To be precise, about 75% of the country’s professionals depend on this sector. For example, women working as housemaids in different houses who have come from the villages to the cities in the hope of work to ensure the well-being of the family.
In the formal economic sectors, most of the people facing this situation are women because they are garment workers. In this sector, which employs about 4 million women, most employers have laid off large numbers or cut wages in a bid to reduce costs, leaving women economically vulnerable.
Women are often harassed for losing their jobs and returning home. Also, many could continue their studies and work in parallel, but it is not possible for them to continue their studies as the work has stopped.
Necessary steps to improve the situation
We need to tackle the ongoing reverse migration effectively because it is not only a matter of economic constraints, but it is feared that it will create many new social concerns.
Many believe that the technical skills and experience of migrant workers will quickly help them create new jobs, so there is no need to worry. Currently, the government’s Ministry of Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment is working to develop diplomatic relations with various countries and provide alternative employment to these workers. Employers of many workers are eager to take them back but due to corona, communication with different countries of the world is cut off.
Since the impact of corona is quite long-term, some initiatives can be taken for alternative employment of people returning to the countryside. Since a large part of our economy is dependent on agriculture, a number of agro-industries can be set up in rural areas where small scale production and processing of goods can take place. There is also a need to encourage small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to produce versatile products. As a result, the local economy, especially the rural economy, will be able to stand on its own feet.
The writer is an analyst on national & international issues.