Estishna Heme chose her mother over her engineering degree more than seven years ago. She had completed the fourth semester at a private university in the capital, when her parents divorced. As the path of the family split, she sided with her mother and her father stopped bearing her educational expenses.
The residence in Narail, staying where Heme had passed higher secondary exams, was no longer her home now. Life changed its course altogether at her grandparent's house in Kapasia upazila of Gazipur.
Years later in December last year, Heme reached another turning point in life as she signed up for a job as a caregiver at Machida Hospital in Tokyo of Japan. She worries about her mother, a nurse at a private clinic in Kapasia. "She has been supporting me all along. I am preparing to support her in her old age," Heme said.
Had the novel coronavirus not spread across the world, had the flights not stopped flying between Japan and Bangladesh, she would have left the country for Japan on June 11.
Like Heme, more than 400 others – men and women – are waiting to set out on a career in Japan. They have made it successfully to the end of a year-long vigorous process of training, evaluation and selection for jobs either as technical interns at private companies or as caregivers in hospitals and old homes in the foreign lands.
The pandemic tore down the Middle Eastern job market, with businesses shutting down and oil prices plunging to an all-time low. The market is hardly expected to expand any further even after the global crisis, with more and more migrants fearing that they would be stripped of their legal status, and fewer jobseekers to find employment in the Gulf nations in the foreseeable future.
Moreover, the abusive work environment and deceits of recruiting agencies have been discouraging factors for sending men for hard labour and women for domestic work just because of meagre wages.
The evolving situation may force Bangladesh to explore new markets that migration experts have been advocating for years. And Japan may become one lucrative destination of educated youths for safe and secure overseas employment.
Migration to Japan, the third largest economy after the US and China, has been very low covering only 0.02 percent of the 1.3 crore Bangladeshi migrants who left home for jobs abroad between 1976 and 2020, according to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET).
Only a little over 2,000 men and women got jobs there through the bureau, but as Md Moshiur Rahman Khan, an assistant director of the BMET, said there were many others who had gone with a student visa and joined the Japanese labour force after completing their studies.
The remittance data raises optimism as Japan with such a low number of migrants is the 20th among the top 30 nations that Bangladesh receives remittances from. In the immediate past fiscal year that ended on June 30, $44.44 million came from Japan.
Saddled with an increasing aging population, Japan has recently opened its doors to foreign workers. In 2017, it made legal amendments, allowing private companies to hire foreign employees up to 10 percent of their total workforce, up from 5 percent earlier, Moshiur Rahman said. At the same time, it extended their working period from three years to maximum five years.
On returning, one would get 2 lakh yen equivalent of Tk1.6 lakh for each year they worked in Japan.
The BMET signed a memorandum of understanding with a Japanese recruiting agency, IM Japan, in March 2017 for recruitment of youths below the age of 30 under paid internship programmes.
About 550 men and women, who had studied at least up to the higher secondary level, have been given technical and language training for a maximum period of six months. Heme, now 26, living in Kapasia upazila of Gazipur, is one of them.
The trainees had to pass evaluation tests before they were offered jobs. About 150 of them had already flown to Japan and joined work before the Covid-19 broke out in Bangladesh, leading to the suspension of international flights.
The BMET official said IM Japan's training programme continued amid the pandemic and the selected candidates would be able to join work as soon as the flights to Japan resumed.
Golam Kibria Bhuiyan, a Japanese language instructor, said he was conducting classes through Zoom and social media platform Facebook.
"Many students in remote areas find it hard to access the internet. Still, they try to participate because they are hopeful of a decent work opportunity and bright future ahead."
Those working in Japan are doing fine and getting duly paid by their employers around this time of a crisis, said one of the trainees, from Narsingdi, wishing not to be named.
One of 44 jobseekers of the fifth batch, he said his fellow batchmates, who had already gone, assured him of the workplaces to be safe in Kyoto, which is 450 kilometres away from Japan's capital, Tokyo.
Having met all the requirements, he is looking forward to joining a construction company as a technical intern in Kyoto deemed as a city of tradition.
On arrival, the migrants get training for one more month to understand Japanese culture and tradition and undergo a medical check-up. Once everything turns out okay, they begin work and learn at the same time. They are tested for the skills they are expected to gain periodically.
The working period extends only if they succeed in the evaluation.
Heme thinks nothing could be a better opportunity than a job that will simultaneously earn her money and provide her with an opportunity to learn.
"If I stay there [in Japan as a trainee caregiver] for five years, I will get a certificate. That will enable me to find a job elsewhere, in another foreign country or maybe in Bangladesh," she said.
With an HSC certificate, her chances of getting a well-paid job in Bangladesh are slim.
In a telephonic interview, she sounded determined to find her way out of the dark passage she had been thrown in.
When money used to be a greater concern than studies, she meandered in localities to promote products like Lifebuoy, working for advertising agencies, or taught children as a home tutor.
She is now studying to elevate her Japanese language skills to level N2. There are five steps–N5 to N1. The level N4 is enough to get the job of a caregiver.
"But if I complete all the levels, I will do better at work and be better prepared for the challenges ahead."