About 86,500 job-seekers secured visas and some of them even bought tickets. But they could not fly. More than 1 lakh workers, who came on vacation, have got stuck at home and are now in fear of losing jobs abroad as their visas are expiring.
Another 3 lakh workers are now stranded in host countries without any income.
These are the stories of expatriates, who work abroad to send money home and whose hard-earned currencies helped the central bank build up a huge foreign exchange reserve.
But nothing much is there for remittance earners.
Overseas recruiting agents said about Tk1,500 crore in visa processing and other associated costs of migrant aspirants has been stuck for months since the pandemic stuck.
The Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira) said its 1,600 members indirectly contribute nearly $18 billion to the economy facilitating remittance inflow of migrant workers and sending around 7 lakh workers to different countries each year.
But they are now crippling with uncertainty of their business and the stimulus packages announced by the government eluded them.
The central bank announced a Tk2,000 crore low-cost fund to help expatriate returnees start business at home. But overseas recruiters are not entitled to get loans from stimulus packages being channelled through banks and overseen by the Bangladesh Bank.
"The 1,600 recruiting agencies have to count a big expense – salary of staff, house rent, service charge – each month, which becomes hard to bear in current situation," said Shameem Ahmed Chowdhury, secretary general, Baira.
The association leaders narrated their ordeal and that of migrant workers on Wednesday through a webinar.
"Around 86,500 migrant workers had visas and among them some secured tickets but they failed to depart due to the coronavirus outbreak. We, too, spent for these workers' visas and tickets," Shameem added.
Baira members at the programme also fuelled the demand of Tk2,000 crore financial aid from the government to cover business losses caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
They sought the money in July through a letter to the prime minister, but yet to see any satisfactory headway.
Shameem said, "If the workers, mostly destined for Saudi Arabia, can go we may recover our loss, but it is uncertain when the situation will normalise."
There is an estimate that more than 1 lakh workers, who came to enjoy their vacation, have been stranded in the country during Covid-19 pandemic and contracts of many of them have expired.
Besides, around 3 lakh workers have been stranded in Arab countries due to coronavirus.
About 3 lakh stranded workers, Shameem said, went there on free visa (NOC), meaning they can work anywhere and for any company. These workers have to bear their living cost themselves. But due to the pandemic, their income fell to zero, which made them vulnerable there.
"We demand that the government provide them with Tk3-5 lakh so that they can survive there," added Shameem.
Noor Ali, former president of Baira, said, "The government and ministry concerned should not remain busy with routine work. In this crisis moment, they have to do more for the betterment of the workers as well as for us.
"Aviation fare and medical costs should be decreased for labourers."
He said, "We have to contribute Tk3,500 to the workers welfare fund against each worker. In this trying time, workers should be aided by the fund."
Baira Advisor Abul Basher said Saudi Arabia may open their door within a month and will take in valid workers.
"We are trying to send all returned workers back. But the government needs to be responsible also. The government should explore job markets in new countries for more remittance," he added.
"The government should also provide financial support for Baira as we made the bridge of remittance earning for the country and contribute to the economy," he said.
Baira President Benjir Ahmed said in the letter that the owners of recruiting agencies are facing huge financial losses due to Covid-19.
"It is not possible for 1,600 recruiting agencies to pay salaries of around Tk45 crore a month for around 16,000 employees, office rents and other expenditures," reads the letter.
Baira President Benjir Ahmed said, "For the welfare of the workers we have to come forward along with government.
"Not blaming any government body, we have to work joining with them to mitigate this crisis, he continued, however, we have given 80 lakh to the prime ministers' fund and will try to provide further," he continued.
He also asked all members not to form any further syndicate, recalling the bad impact of syndicate sending workers to Malaysia.
More than 1 crore Bangladeshis are now working in different countries. Most of them went abroad through manpower recruiting agencies.
Dr Ahsan H Mansur, executive director of the Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh, expressed concerns that the overall inflow of remittance towards Bangladesh would reduce substantially and the effect will sustain for several years due to drop the rate of manpower export.
He told The Business Standard that expatriates from Bangladesh usually go on agreements of two or three years. That is why most of expatriates are bound to come back to the country within every three years. Remittance would see a rapid drop, if these people failed to return.
He also said the adverse impact on remittance due to the low number of new expatriates will start after a year because new expatriates require at least one year to remit after adjusting themselves abroad.
Dr Mansur also said whenever the negative impact on remittance will begin, it will reduce remittance and the impact will stay for several years.
Dismissing the possibility of a rapid turnaround in the country's labour market in abroad, the economist said, "The destination of the most of the expatriates from Bangladesh is the Middle East, and the economy of the region is worst among all regions of the world.
"Despite some recovery signs of the global economy, the economy of the Middle East is expected a prolonged recession due to lower demand and dropped price of oil," he said, adding that Bangladesh must wait for recovery of the Middle East to boost manpower export.
Towfiqul Islam Khan, senior research fellow of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), told The Business Standard that Bangladesh has a record of exporting over 10 lakh of manpower in a year. Pandemic reduced the number of new expatriates even below of one fourth compared to other years. That is why, the growth of foreign remittance will dry up in the near future.
The economist also said the recovery of the global economy is not sufficient to ensure boost the export of manpower if infection of Covid-19 is not reduced. Employers in abroad will not trust our testing system due to some previous scams, he said.
He urged the government to introduce a holistic policy which could ensure trust of foreign employers through maintaining good governance.
In the immediate past fiscal year 2019-20, the country received $18.20 billion remittance from the migrant workers.
Security deposit comes as a trouble on trouble for recruiters. The overseas employment ministry in April decided to temporarily return 50 percent of the security deposits of the agencies.
The current security deposit for our licence is Tk20 lakh. Baira wants 75% return of their deposits until situation turns normal and their business resumes.