Impact of coronavirus on labour migration, overseas employment and remittance inflow

Aminul Hoque Tushar

Coronavirus has disrupted the rhythm of economic activities of more than 200 countries in the world. In order to stem the rapid spread of this pandemic, a scientifically accepted preventative strategies has been followed worldwide to lockdown cities, areas and levy restriction on public movement and maintaining social distances. 

As the major host countries for Bangladeshi migrant workers, the business closures and restrictions to movement in Middle Eastern and South East countries, combined with lack or limited access to all forms of health and social protection, increase migrants’ vulnerability to food and nutrition insecurity. 

According to Amnesty international and Human Rights Watch (HRW), migrant workers across the gulf are in most imperiled situation because of being living in cramped accommodation and inadequate sanitation facilities. Some employers in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates pressurised their migrant workers to work, do not pay salaries and enough personal protection equipment’s, while some of GCC state government permitted paid quarantine leave. 

The quarantined and confinement of Bangladeshi workers in GCC countries including Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Qatar, Malaysia, Bahrain, Jordan and UAE are facing food shortage as they are running short of money. Therefore, it is estimated that, more than one million workers have the chance to return Bangladesh.  

Response from Bangladesh Government and missions:

Rapid spread of COVID 19 globally created economic crisis worldwide as it halted export – import oriented business and trade as well as the agricultural production. As mentioned earlier, millions of people became unemployed and will remain unemployed for uncertain period. However, to administer the economic crisis, countries are taking multi-dimensional initiatives to support gear-up the export-import and internal trade and business. 

Bangladesh, like other affected country also authorised Tk. 72,750 crore ($8.55 billion or 2.5% of GDP) as stimulus packages to address the economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak. The Ministry of Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment (MoEWOE), as relevant authority to response for the migrant workers has taken several initiatives. 

It allocated five crore taka for 23 foreign missions of Bangladesh to supply food packages among feeble migrants. The returnee migrants who will successfully complete 14 days mandatory quarantine will also receiving cash support up to taka 5,000 taka as local transportation from the Wage Earners’ Welfare fund.

Earlier, the minister announced to give three lakh taka as death compensation for migrant workers who died of coronavirus. Moreover, the ministry planned for Tk. 200 crore stimulus packages for migrants, as loan with ease condition and with only 4% interest for returnee to start-up own business. 

Though the source of that fund obviously the Wage Earners Welfare fund, however a strategic guidelines and loan distribution process and strategies yet to prepare, where the involvement of CSO and migrant organisations are essential. To support these migrant workers with foods, medicine supplies and health emergencies, the Bangladesh high commission abroad has to play important role though the foreign missions has no specific emergency response protocol for migrant workers. 

Some high commission like: Jordan, Singapore, Malaysia started distribution of food packages among the distressed migrants and updating COVID status and raise awareness from Facebook page. Some embassies like: Qatar, Malaysia High Commission started online registration for migrant workers who require food help.

Strategies and guidelines to overcome the challenges: 

In order to curb the aggressive impact of COVID 19 on overseas employment, migration and remittance flows, following recommendations could follow by the government, private sector and the non-government organizations. 

1. Developing and administering Emergency response and mitigation strategic plan: 

To mitigate the risks of Bangladeshi migrant workers irrespective of their migration status and gender during emergency situation like natural disaster, war or pandemic; the Expat ministry have to develop an emergency response and mitigation plan for Bangladesh migrant workers. 

The expat repatriate, relief distribution, legal support to detainee migrants, shelter home management, psychosocial counseling and air transportation strategies should consider as fundamental points within the plan. 

2. Digitalisation of financial transaction and remittance transfer: 

To make remittance transfer cheaper and convenient, the government could support universal money transfer model to disburse remittances through digital means. The central bank, in this purview could take initiatives such as: reduce transfer cost of digital payment systems, promote financial literacy among migrant communities entailing the private sectors (Banks, Financial institutions, Mobile banking operators, Microfinance institutions, Post office etc.) and available the services at grassroots level.

3. Protection of health rights at destination and origin country: 

Protecting health rights of migrant workers remain a major concern, as in majority the migrant workers inadequately receive health care facilities by their employers as well as from the host country authorities. Bangladesh High Commission in this perspective, could convey the host country authorities and employers to ensure health rights through regular joint monitoring visit, issuance of health card and insurance for migrant workers at destination country.

4. Creation of database of migrant workers:

The coronavirus pandemic gave a big break for Bangladesh government to create migrants database, as thousands of migrant workers irrespective of their migration status, and gender are undergoing registration using foreign missions webpage to receive relief and for repatriation. Despite the government initiatives, private sector and CSO online platform like: Probashi Help Line, could also assist to create the database, but require to render the information and avid the possibilities of duplication.

5. Prevention of irregular migration and trafficking: 

To combat the irregular migration and trafficking, it is required to strengthen the activities and performance of Rescue, Recovery, Repatriation and Integration (RRRI) Task Force to combat possible human and labor trafficking. BMET as key licensing authority for recruiting agencies (RAs) should increase its monitoring to control the irregular migration. 

Moreover, BMET tandem with BAIRA should also needs to grab immediate strategies through developing and execute ‘Manpower Business Stimulation Action Plan’ to recover the manpower business as well as to promote safe, orderly and skill migration.

6. Promotion of demand driven skill migration:

The COVID 19 pandemic effects attained the world to realise the importance of health workers including doctor, nurse, and laboratory technicians. Therefore, the demand for skill health workers will increase, which opportunity Bangladesh could clutch for skill migration. 

Therefore, Technical Training Center could focus their education program on nursing, health technology, medical lab technology, hospital management, medicine and hospitality, and adopt strategies to find new job market.

7. Social protection for migrant workers and families: 

For ensure social cohesion for migrants, special VGD, VGF cards needs to allocate for these migrant families from mainstream social safety net programs. Though the Expatriate Welfare ministry made mandatory insurance for migrant workers, the ministry as well as the Wage earners’ welfare board and Probashi Kallayan Bank (PKB) could offer special social insurance packages (including life insurance, health insurance and relief card) from migrants’ families apart from education scholarship, compensation for deceased migrant workers.

9. Strengthening regional platforms and groups to foster skill and safe migration: 

Once the pandemic will over, the trends for migration, overseas employments and remittance may change its pattern and nature due to overwhelming the economic crisis. Therefore, international and regional platform and process like: Abu Dhabi Dialogue, Colombo Process, Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) and SAARC needs to carry essential role to foster the overseas employment as well as skill migration. 

As major migrant source countries are of South Asia, the SAARC has the opportunity to consider migration issue to work with as common interest of the member state. SAARC could set-up ‘Migration Center’ as regional centers like other centers.

This pandemic somehow has provided an opportunity to government to address gaps and loopholes within the migration governance and management and act accordingly to mitigate the impacts of COVID 19. 

Bangladesh government has taken a number of initiative to extend its support for migrants workers in destination country as well as in Bangladesh. However, to overcome the possible impact on employment, remittance inflow and cash circulations, the above mentioned recommendations and points could give a clear pathways for government as well as private sectors, NGOs to take and consider short, medium and long term measures to address the challenges.

Aminul Hoque Tushar is a Migration Analyst