The remittances sent home by Bangladeshi expatriate workers in recent times, especially since the advent of Covid-19 pandemic, have been contributing a lot towards revamping the country's economy. An upward trend has been observed in the inflow of remittances since June following a negative trend in March and April. Alongside bringing in precious foreign currency for the country, migration of Bangladeshi workers has also been making positive contributions to Bangladesh economy through employment generation of country's surplus workers.
However, although the trend in remittance receipts has been positive during corona-infected times, there are doubts about its sustainability. For example, the remittance inflow is found to be mostly seasonal in the country, and consecutive Eid festivals might have contributed a lot towards a rise in June and July. Besides, many workers might have been sending their savings due to or apprehension of losing jobs in the host countries. In addition, the workers might have sent a lion's share of their income by foregoing consumption in order to help their families in Bangladesh who were severely affected by the pandemic. Besides, the inflow of remittances via legal channels might have risen due to complexities faced in sending money through illegal means like 'Hundi'. The provision of 2 percent cash incentive for remittances might also have played a catalytic role in shoring up the inflow.
Now the question is, how sustainable would be this rise in remittances? According to the estimates of ADB, the flow of remittances to the countries of South Asia is likely to fall by 26 percent due to the impact of Covid-19. With respect to Bangladesh, the demand for Bangladeshi workers might decline in the backdrop of dwindling oil prices in the middle-east. Besides, a second wave of the pandemic might also have a detrimental effect on demand for workers abroad. The return of a huge number of stranded workers to host countries has also become difficult due to economic downturns as well as health-risks. The quota restrictions on foreign workers imposed by some middle-eastern countries including the UAE may also wield a negative impact on Bangladeshi workers. The risks for these workers are higher as they are comparatively less skilled.
The recovery of Bangladesh's rural economy would be hindered and there would be extra pressure on the domestic labour market if the prospects for the country's migrant workers get a jolt in the foreseeable future. The incentives announced by the government for them till now include creation of a fund of Taka 2 billion for assisting them, cash assistance of Taka 200 million to be delivered through overseas Bangladesh missions, and loans for the returnee workers at an interest rate of 4 percent via Expatriates' Welfare Bank. Besides, an amount of Taka 5 billion has been kept in the budget for their employment generation. But the utilisation rate of these funds has been abysmally low till now. Administrative cum diplomatic initiatives are now required for the employment generation cum health-security of the workers who are staying abroad, for those who have returned, as well as for workers who seek to return or get fresh employment in the overseas market.
Many expatriate workers who have returned cannot take advantage of official incentives for their employment as these are processed through banks and tagged with complex conditions. Bangladesh Bank should therefore reconsider the conditions in order to reduce complexities in releasing funds. Besides, the amount of loans should also be enhanced. Apart from credit facilities, there is also the need for providing workers with investment cum employment-related support services as well as appropriate training.
The Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment as well as the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training should come forward to utilise the skills of returnee workers in the domestic market. Apart from proper utilisation of expatriates' welfare fund, the allocations for emergency aid to returnee workers should be increased and their disbursement should be expedited. Besides, the ministry should instruct BAIRA (Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agents) to prepare the list of workers who have paid required fees to its members for overseas employment. They should be extended needed services on an urgent basis. Additional flights may be arranged for the returnee migrant workers who seek to return to their host countries and the relevant authorities should play a proactive role for resolving their visa-related, testing, and documentation problems.
Overall, it can be said in conclusion that the remittances sent home by expatriate workers as well as the engagement of returnee workers in the domestic economy are equally important for the recovery of Bangladesh economy from the adverse impact of Covid-19 pandemic. The administrative complexities should be reduced as much as possible, so that the migrant workers feel more encouraged to send money through legal channels in order to bolster the flow of remittances. Besides, there is no alternative to boosting and reinforcing diplomatic initiatives for sending back the returnee workers and stopping their return from host-countries. Some challenges like workers becoming victims of fraud and deception after going abroad, and tortures-repression suffered by female workers at the hands of their overseas employers should also be addressed urgently on a priority basis, without which the status of expatriate workers cannot be improved significantly.
A big hindrance to bringing about meaningful reforms is the inadequate financial cum administrative capacity of the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment for addressing multifarious challenges faced by the migrant workers. Besides, the Bangladeshi workers are prone to higher risks during times of adversity, as they are mostly unskilled or semi-skilled, and are employed largely in less productive sectors. Therefore, priority should be attached to grooming a more educated and skilled workforce, so that they can cater to the overseas jobs market in a more fruitful manner. That in turn would contribute much towards upholding the interests of expatriate workers and benefit Bangladesh economy in a more wholesome manner.
Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.