Overseas employment of Bangladeshi migrants has been returning to normalcy in the last few months amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Migrants are showing interest in going to the Middle Eastern countries, with around 1.46 lakh Bangladeshis leaving the country from January to March this year for job purposes, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET).
Currently, around 50,000-60,000 work visas for top destinations, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are being processed, according to the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira).
The World Bank expects most Gulf economies – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – to recover this year at a faster pace than previously projected, thanks to their high Covid-19 testing per capita and acceleration of effective mass vaccination campaigns.
As the Gulf countries gained access to vaccines earlier than most nations, their mass vaccination campaigns are expected to speed up economic recovery even more.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh's remittance inflow is to hit a record high this fiscal year as migrants have already sent around $18.6 billion in the first nine months from July to March, which was the highest since the financial year 1991-92.
Of the amount, around 55% ($10.3 billion) was sent from the six Gulf countries and the rest from other destinations.
The second wave of Covid-19 slightly hit the gradually improving trend of Middle East-bound workers as the government suspended all international flights to and from Bangladesh and has been operating only special flights to seven migrant destinations.
"The employment trend was gradually improving after the first lockdown imposed last year was lifted. But the second wave-induced lockdown this year slowed the trend. Currently, the Saudi Arabian embassy in Dhaka has kept its operations closed due to the lockdown," said Kafil Uddin Mojumder, proprietor of Freedom Overseas and former welfare secretary of Baira.
"Around 500 workers flew to Saudi Arabia, mostly as domestic workers, through my agency after the labour market there reopened in September 2020. Now we are processing 100 new visas and 70-80 people are waiting to fly," he added.
Around 61,000 Bangladeshis were employed in different countries in March this year, up from 49,510 in February and 35,732 in January, according to BMET.
On average, around 60,000 Bangladeshis got jobs in different countries, mostly in the Middle East, every month before the pandemic. Covid-19 brought the normal trend of overseas employment to a halt last year and there was no migration during April-June. In August, the Middle East job markets reopened.
More than 2.17 lakh Bangladeshi migrants flew to different destinations last year, according to BMET. Among them, 36,451 were employed from July to December.
The countries that have reopened their labour markets for Bangladeshis are Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Jordan and Singapore. Currently, special flights are being operated to these countries, as well as Bahrain and Kuwait, amid the lockdown only for migrants.
Saudi Arabia is the top destination for Bangladeshi migrants, generating 76% of all overseas employment for them in January and February this year. The oil-rich country recruited 44,957 Bangladeshis in March, 38,396 in February, and 26,650 in January.
"We are sending workers to Saudi Arabia as cleaners, sales people, and hotel and construction workers. The migration cost is Tk1.5-2 lakh. Now, we have a demand for sending 150 workers in Saudi Arabia with a basic salary of Tk20,000-25,000," said Shahadat Hossain, managing director of 4-Site International.
Oman recruited 18,414 Bangladeshis till March this year after reopening its job market in August last year.
Although the UAE labour market has remained closed for Bangladeshi migrants since 2012, they can find employment after going there on visit visas.
"There is an opportunity for workers from some countries to go to the UAE for three months on visit visas. They can then convert those into work visas and stay there for a certain period according to the job contract," said Shamim Ahmed Chowdhury Noman, former secretary general of Baira.
"We, the recruiting agencies, are sending workers to the UAE with BMET clearance. But many travel agencies that are sending workers with visit visas do not have government approval. The authorities should immediately stop them from doing so," he added.
The UAE is recruiting Bangladeshi migrants as construction workers, security guards, and cleaners with a salary of 1,000 dirhams (Tk23,090), according to recruiters.
Malaysia, home to around eight lakh Bangladeshis, suspended recruiting workers from Bangladesh in September 2018 following allegations of monopoly by a syndicate of recruiting agencies and workers being charged higher migration costs than the official figures.
It agreed to reopen its labour market to Bangladeshi workers in October last year, but the process stalled due to the pandemic.
High ticket prices add to migrants' woes
All local and foreign airlines operating international flights have doubled or tripled ticket prices amid the pandemic, resulting in a rise in migration costs from Bangladesh, according to manpower recruiters.
They said migration costs would have been less if ticket prices were normal.
''A Saudi Arabia-bound worker has to pay around Tk70,000-80,000 for a ticket, which was Tk25,000-30,000 in the pre-Covid-19 period. The situation is the same for workers migrating to other Middle Eastern countries," said Shahadat.
The high air fare is discouraging migrants, he added.
Recruiting agency owners said there is no rational ground for increasing ticket prices as migrants from other countries like Nepal, India, and Pakistan are not facing this problem.
They said the civil aviation and tourism ministry had not taken any measure against the airlines authorities even after frequent requests to do so.
Gulf economies bounce back
The World Bank in its latest report said the Gulf region's gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to increase by 2.2% this year, compared to its earlier forecast of only 1.8% released in October last year.
Released on 2 April, the report, "Living with Debt: How Institutions Can Chart a Path to Recovery in the Middle East and North Africa", also said growth is projected to reach 3.3% in 2022.
Saudi Arabia – the world's biggest oil exporter and the biggest remittance hotspot for Bangladesh – expects 2.4% GDP growth in 2021, recovering from a deep 4.1% contraction last year. In October last year, it forecast a 5.4% drop in 2020 and a 2% growth this year.
Oman saw the biggest positive revision of the Gulf economies, from expectations of only a 0.5% growth this year to a forecast of 2.5%, the World Bank said.
It is followed by Kuwait, which is now expected to grow by 2.4% this year versus a forecast of 1% in October last year.
Bahrain's economy is estimated to grow by 3.3% this year, higher than the previous estimation of 2.2%.
Forecasts for Qatar and the UAE were kept unchanged for this year, with Qatar expected to post 3% growth. But the economy is to grow further to 4.1% in 2022 versus the previous forecast of 3%.
The UAE – the Gulf's second-largest economy where more than 74% of people had been vaccinated– will see a 1.2% growth this year and the figure will grow further to 2.5% in 2022, rebounding from a 6.3% contraction in 2020. The growth figures for the UAE are the same as the October data.
Bangladeshi remittance earners hope that this rebound will continue. But a resurgence of Covid-19 infections will be the key downside risk to the recovering economic outlook of the Gulf countries.
When the novel coronavirus pandemic began its onslaught across the globe last year, international organizations and experts predicted that destination countries would send back a large number of Bangladeshi migrants, causing a massive drop in remittance.
However, data show a very different picture. Amid Covid-19, the number of returnees is around 5 lakh, slightly higher than that in normal times, which is not alarming, according to stakeholders.
Remittance inflows from major destination countries even witnessed an uptrend when the pandemic was at its peak. Around 1.2 crore Bangladeshis are working across the globe, according to an unofficial estimate.