The Covid-19 impacts on Bangladesh's overseas jobs and remittance inflows have not been as damaging as projected by many global organisations with major destination countries having rebounded from pandemic shocks quickly and job prospects looking up.
When the novel coronavirus pandemic began its onslaught across the globe, international organisations and experts predicted that destination countries would send back a large number of Bangladeshi migrant workers, causing a massive loss in remittance.
However, available data shows a very different trend. Amid Covid-19, the number of migrant returnees is slightly higher than in normal time – it is not at an "alarming level".
Remittance inflows from major destination countries even witnessed an uptrend when the pandemic was at its peak.
It is now a matter of optimism for Bangladesh as the Middle East job market, that hosts around 50 lakh Bangladeshi workers, is going to reopen soon.
Saudi Arabia, the largest destination for Bangladeshi migrants, has already reopened its doors to Bangladeshi workers.
The Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira) claimed that Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Jordan will start new recruitment very soon.
Experts believe the withdrawal of lockdowns and rapid economic recoveries in the destination countries have made it possible for the labour market to recover. This is also the reason why not many Bangladeshi workers returned home.
"The economic situation in Middle Eastern countries is improving. There is no lockdown in major destinations now. Their economies are mobilising. So, they need secondary-sector workers like cleaners, drivers, housemaids," said Dr Syeda Rujana Rashid, a migration expert and professor of International Relations at Dhaka University.
"Most Bangladeshis work in the secondary sector. So, there will be a continuous demand for our workers in the sectors in the coming days," she added.
However, she fears that the situation might deteriorate if the second and third waves of Covid-19 hit these countries.
On average, around seven lakh Bangladeshis were recruited in different countries in the last couple of years.
Only 1.81 lakh workers were recruited till March this year until the pandemic made inroads in the country, according to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET). However, the recruitment process has begun again.
"We are getting a good demand from the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, for new workers. But the challenge is to secure a work permit there," said Shameem Ahmed Chowdhury Noman, secretary general at Baira.
He said the government of Bangladesh should have a strong mechanism to make an employer in the destination country accountable for their failure to comply with proper rules for ensuring work permit for Bangladeshi workers.
Md Shahadat Hossain, managing director of 4 Site International, a recruiting agency, said, "We have sent around 50 new workers to Saudi Arabia since November this year. We have a demand for around 400 new workers as cleaners and technical labourers with a salary of 800-1500 Saudi riyal."
"But we are not getting enough response even though we are keeping charges low-- only Tk1.5 to 2 lakh for each migrant," he added.
Once the Covid-19 vaccination programme starts, the destination countries will open their doors and workers will feel encouraged to go to those countries.
Md Mahedi Hasan, labour counsellor of Bangladesh Embassy, Riyadh, said, "Although the recruitment procedure is slow because of Covid-19 restrictions, the Saudi employers are gradually appointing workers. The number will increase in the coming days."
Md Shamsul Alam, director general of the BMET, said, "We emphasise sending skilled workers. But there is a demand for less-skilled [unskilled] workers in the Middle East. Many are going there without any technical training."
"Now, we have restarted our training centre for selected workers," he added.
The number of migrant returnees not alarming
Around 3.6 lakh migrant workers have returned home from 29 countries, mostly from the Middle East, between 1 April and 12 October this year, according to the expatriate welfare desk of Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport.
Some of them were jobless, some did time in prison in the destination countries and some came on leave.
Data shows some 1,07,423 migrants have returned from Saudi Arabia, the highest among the destination countries. The second highest, around 96,775 migrants returned from the UAE.
"Saudi authorities send back undocumented workers as a routine process. Most Saudi returnees were sent back because they were undocumented, not because of the pandemic," said Md Mahedi Hasan, labour counsellor of Bangladesh Riyadh Embassy.
Baira Secretary General Shameem Ahmed Chowdhury said, "Around 20,000-30,000 migrants returned every month before the Covid-19 hit. So, the number of returnees after that is not at the alarming level now."
International predictions proved wrong
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) predicted in August 2020 that Bangladesh might lose 27.8% of remittance in 2020 owing to the pandemic.
However, the organisation has a different finding in another publication in December 2020, where it said, "Economic activity in Bangladesh has recovered more strongly than expected with both exports and remittances growing in recent months…"
Earlier in April, the World Bank projected that remittance inflow in Bangladesh might decline by 22% in 2020 to $14 billion due to Covid-19 impacts.
But Bangladeshi expatriates have already proved these projections wrong.
From January to November this year, Bangladesh's remittance inflow has already reached $19.69 billion, about $5.69 billion higher than the projection.
However, World Bank's Migration and Development Brief 33 revised its projection on 29 October and said Bangladesh's remittance inflow will increase 8% in 2020 to $20 billion despite a global decline.
It has also projected that Bangladesh will be among the top ten remittance recipients in the world this year.
Economic recovery of top overseas destinations
Saudi Arabia – the world's biggest oil exporter and the biggest remittance hotspot for Bangladesh – expects 3.2% GDP growth in 2021, recovering from the projected 3.7% contraction this year according to its Budget Statement 2021 announced on 16 December.
According to a Reuters report, most economic sectors in Saudi Arabia had started to recover from the pandemic's impacts in the second half of this year.
One of the top overseas employers for Bangladeshi workers, the UAE's GDP growth rate is forecasted to be 5.2% at the end of 2020.
On 16 December, the World Economic Forum said in its "Global Competitiveness Report 2020" that the UAE, one of the leading countries, is relatively more resilient to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In October, the World Bank said Covid-19 and the sharp fall in hydrocarbon revenues will shrink the economic growth of Qatar by 2% by the end of 2020 and it will turn positive (3%) again in 2021.
The World Bank also said its growth will reach around 3% by 2022 from delivery and legacy investments for the Fifa World Cup.
According to the Department of Statistics, Malaysia, the country started to recover in the 3rd quarter of the year.
The country's GDP growth rate contracted to -17.1% in the second quarter. However, in the third quarter, the growth uplifted to -2.7% due to rebounded performance of the manufacturing sector.
Oman and Kuwait are also showing strong signs of recovery. According to "World Economic Outlook, October 2020: A Long and Difficult Ascent" by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the economic growth of Kuwait would be 0.648% in 2021 from -8.077%. The situation for Oman would be -10.004% to -0.545% in 2021.