Middle-east jobs: Rolling up the welcome mat
That day of reckoning has arrived in 2020 and the pandemic has only quickened this transition. There is no chance that these jobs will come back, even after the pandemic is over
Sweating in his white Toyota Camry parked in the shade of an acacia tree in Abu Dhabi, Zakir Hossain could feel that 2030 has arrived in 2020.
He had no luck on Sunday, what should have been a normal working day. Only four passengers had travelled in his taxi and it was already a hot and dry afternoon in the capital of the United Arab Emirates, he told us over the phone.
Zakir spends around 14-16 hours in the driving seat every day since the restriction on movements was withdrawn within the city in mid-May. When he hit the road after sitting idle for two months, he realised his ordeal was far from over.
The 49-year-old had zero income that month in commission from the taxi company he works for. "If I do not earn more than 6,000 Dirham in a month for the company, I get nothing," he said on the phone.
June was better. But whatever little he earned was spent for his own rent and other expenses. This month his income dropped again, making him fret about the regular money he sends home for his wife and two children. This is the third straight month that Zakir's family received no money from him.
Meanwhile, back home in Bangladesh, remittance flow plunged by 23 percent in April compared to that a year earlier and it was also down by 13 percent in May, according to the central bank. June, however, saw an increase in the money inflow.
Then in July ahead of Eid-ul-Azha, remittance showed a sudden robust growth of 62 percent year-on-year. But that is not because things have improved in the entire Arab world.
It was actually a bad omen – this spurt in remittance flow. It only signals that workers are finally packing up for their journey back home. It means their dreams of making it in the oil-rich countries have finally come to an end. It means their jobs are gone and will never come back.
Since March 26, more than 30,000 migrants have already returned until July 17 through special flights.
To make it worse, there was no overseas employment after March this year although about 50,000 people used to go abroad seeking jobs every month.
According to Bangladesh International Recruiting Agencies, the pandemic upset the plans of around one lakh jobseekers with visas or in the middle of recruitment to proceed to their destinations.
And it is a clear sign that 2030 has already arrived ten years earlier.
In recent years, the oil-rich countries that had found a new trove of petrodollars in the 1970s realised that the oil run would not last very long as the world woke up to the ecological disaster caused by the burning of fossil fuel. Renewable energy is the future and so they had chalked out their future plans.
For example, Saudi Arabia, the largest employers of lowly paid people like Zakir, had announced a "Vision 2030" that schemed a future without the muscle of petrodollar. Other nations also had their own plans drawn up that centred upon diversifying the economy and weaning off foreign workers, as much as possible, and employing locals in jobs that are now occupied by foreign workers.
That day of reckoning has arrived in 2020 and the pandemic has only quickened this transition. There is no chance that these jobs will come back, even after the pandemic is over.
The oil revenue of the Middle-East and North Africa has already dipped from $1 trillion in 2012 to $575 billion last year and it is expected to further fall to the region of $300 billion this year – many billion dollars short of their expenditures.
The countries are tackling this shortfall in revenues with new taxes and spending cuts. Saudi Arabia has raised its internal fuel prices and stopped the cost-of-living allowance for state workers.
Poorer Arab countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Algeria are also smarting under this oil shock. Many of their citizens used to work in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar. They are now packing up for home as well. The Hajj season did not help them at all. The annual pilgrimage drew 2.6 million people last year, this year only 1,000 performed the Hajj.
The slump, even worsened by the pandemic, has hit like a ton of bricks the likes of Zakir.
Currently, more than one crore people are working abroad, with 75 percent of them in the Gulf nations. Many of them sold off familial properties and dipped in savings for jobs that will pay them enough to make life better for those back home.
Mostak Ahmed, 35, is one of many others who are awaiting repatriation from Saudi Arabia. He has been staying there without a work permit for two years.
The company he had worked for closed its operation at the end of 2017 after one of its partners fled without paying off wages and arrears to its workers, he said.
Before the pandemic, Mostak could manage work 10-12 days a month for having skills to operate machines to produce plastic items. "I always had to navigate carefully to escape arrest by the police. Although I worked illegally, I sent home Tk10,000 -Tk12,000 every month," he said.
For the last five months, he has had no income. He cannot wait any longer to get the dues from the company, against which he and more than 200 others had filed a lawsuit with a Saudi Arabian court.
Last week, Mostak's wife sent him 100 Saudi Riyal [Tk2,253] from her parents, as he did not have money to buy food. He had been subsisting on handouts by an embassy and his elder brother, whose income from fish processing has recently been slashed by almost 50 percent.
Mostak feels that he has been pushed to the wall into coming back home.
Meanwhile, many others see their dreams of a better life shattered by the diminishing opportunities to earn money in a rich country.
There were risks of abuse and exploitation by employers and dishonest recruitment agencies. Some made perilous journeys across the sea, without legal papers. There was a yearning for a better future in all these because migration seemed to be one shortcut to go out of poverty.
Twenty-six-year-old Mohammad Chakir Ahmed, from Chittagong, also went to Malaysia in 2016 with a student visa but an aspiration to find a way of living there.
His father, who had a small grocery store at the time in a village called Napora Mirpara under Banshkhali thana and his elder brothers put together Tk1.5 lakh for his admission in a two-year diploma course in culinary arts.
Chakir worked part-time under the table to bear his living costs. After he finished the course, he paid a construction company in Malaysia to get an offer letter that would help him get a work permit.
He then, along with two other Bangladeshis, started a business venture. They would take the lease of condominiums and rent those out to guests.
In March, Chakir came home for some vacation time with his family. Little did he know what was coming.
His friends are stuck in Malaysia without income. Chakir's visa is about to expire in three months.
Since Malaysia has stopped allowing migrants before the pandemic, Chakir fears he will not be able to enter the country again.
"From Malaysia, I could renew my visa every year. I paid the construction company 4,000 Ringgit to issue a letter," he said. The renewal fee is 3,500 Ringgit. If Chakir has to stay back, he is yet to decide what to do to support his parents and younger siblings.
The government has declared a fund of Tk500 crore from the stimulus package to support returnees like Chakir. Apart from that, the Wage Earners Welfare Board has given a fund of Tk200 crore to Probashi Kallyan Bank to disburse loans at 4 percent interest rate. A returnee will be able to borrow Tk1-5 lakh from the fund.
Shakirul Islam, from Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program, working to improve livelihoods of migrants, however said only disbursement of loans would not help them much.
"There should be a holistic approach. Returnees have to be trained, counselled and helped with a business plan."
Only Tk700 crore will not be enough for the purpose, he said, adding that his organisation demands an allocation of at least 2-4 percent of the remittance received last year for rehabilitation of migrants.
On a Monday [July 27] virtual discussion, Expatriates Welfare and Overseas Employment Minister Imran Ahmad acknowledged that the sources of immigrant labour countries had come under huge economic pressure owing to the damage done by the pandemic to the foreign job markets.
Besides, the global oil price has nosedived. In efforts to help the economies rebound, the Gulf nations are expected to shut their doors to migrants and engage local people in employment.
"There were policies already [before the pandemic] in place, unfavourable for migrants. The implementation will only be expedited," Shakirul of the migrant welfare programme said.