South Asia’s migrant workers are facing a jobs crisis both at home and abroad

Migrant workers wait to get their Covid-19 tests as they return to look for jobs in New Delhi, India, on 18 August 2020. (AP/Manish Swarup)

In February 2020, PK Valsala, a 45-year-old single woman from Kerala, south India, went to Oman to start a job as a domestic worker. She was sent to Kish Island in Iran by her Omani employer to change her tourist visa into a work visa. She landed on 22 February and was scheduled to return to Oman on 26 February.

“I thought that I would be able to change my visa and re-enter Oman in a week or so,” she says. But then the coronavirus hit. “The very next day, Oman closed it air borders, then Iran too.”

At first, she wasn’t too alarmed. “My employer called me and told me not to worry. He sent some money to the hotel where I was staying, which was enough to cover my expenses for for two weeks. He told me that everything would be fine after that time.” But that wasn’t the case.

Valsala found herself stranded on Kish Island, a popular tourist resort in the Persian Gulf, for 142 days. She struggled for food and even faced eviction from the hotel where she was staying because she could no longer afford to pay her bills, and neither could her employer.

However, a few social organisations in Oman supported her and she was finally repatriated to India in July, along with 700 Indian fisherman who were also stranded on the Iranian coast in an Indian Navy Ship.

Upon returning to India, Valsala – who had previously worked in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – thought that she would be able to return to Oman for work, but her employer was unable to hire her again.

Before the coronavirus there were an estimated 23 million migrant workers in the Gulf region. The twin shock of the coronavirus pandemic and falling oil prices led the IMF to predict that the economies of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (also known as the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC) would contract by a massive 7.1 per cent in 2020.

Valsala’s was one of the eight million jobs (or 13.2 per cent of working hours) that the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates was lost across the entire Arab region in the second quarter of 2020.

For the migrant workers who have managed to stay in the countries where they live and work, the Institute for Human Rights and Business says: “Many [migrant workers] have been confined to poor living conditions in cramped dormitories, experienced job loss or non-payment of wages, been forced by employers to take unpaid leave or reduced wages, or repatriated back home with few to no alternative work options.”

Migration outflow down

But for those who were forced to return home or who have been unable to leave their home country to start a new job abroad, the situation has been mixed. There is not yet any conclusive data on just how badly the coronavirus has impacted labour migration in South Asia (which is one of the biggest hubs of migrant labour globally) but the few statistics that are available paint a stark picture.

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Both India and Bangladesh, two of the biggest sending countries in the region, witnessed a colossal dip in migration outflow in 2020. According to eMigrate, a channel set up by the Indian government to ensure fair migration, 368,043 people migrated abroad through the eMigrate channel in 2019; in 2020, that number was just 88,694, representing a 75 per cent decrease.

Meanwhile, official data from the Bangladesh Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training also reveals a 74 percent decrease in migration outflow in 2020 (181, 218 people) compared to 2019 (700,159 people).

The economic situation in Oman forced Valsala to look for a job in her home state of Kerala. In September, she got a job working 10 hours a day for US$245 a month – which is about US$100 less than what she would have earned in Oman. On top of that, the recruitment agency was charging her US$40 a month in commission. “The agency is exploitative and doesn’t even allow sick leave. Also, due to the Covid-19 restrictions, it is quite risky to go to unknown houses, stay there and do the job. So, I quit in November,” Valsala tells Equal Times.

She is desperately trying to get back to the Gulf. “But at the moment, there are not many jobs there. Even if there are jobs, the salary is too low. I was offered US$320 in the Gulf in February. Now, agents are telling me that I will get only US$200,” she laments.

Moazzem Hossain is a 33-year-old Bangladeshi worker who lost his job as a mason in Saudi Arabia last year. Although he was sent back to Bangladesh due to the economic crisis, he is also trying to return to the Gulf.

“I am now working as a construction worker in Dhaka. I get paid just US$170 a month and with that, I have to take care of my six-member family. It is hard to survive. In Saudi Arabia, I was able to earn around US$350 a month,” Hossain tells Equal Times.

“I have approached an agent in Dhaka. He is telling me that job opportunities are too low in the Arab Gulf now.” He is also asking for an increased recruitment fee. “When I went in 2017, I paid US$1,700 in fees. Now, I would have to pay US$2,000.” But Hussain says that he is willing to pay the extra money if it lands him a job abroad.

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Building a better recruitment process

When asked whether the fall in migration outflow is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, Shabari Nair, an ILO labour migration specialist for South Asia, said it was too early to tell. Although he notes the gradual resumption of foreign recruitment in some destination countries, Nair says: “It would be better to assess this situation along the lines of the demands from the countries of destination, the specific sectors that demand these workers and the skills that the workers possess.”

He says he hopes governments and employers will use the disruption caused by the pandemic as an opportunity to build a better recruitment process for migrant workers, one that ensures that workers are protected right from the very start. Nair also predicts that there may be some changes in the sectors that have the most vacancies. “Healthcare workers, for example, may be in high demand,” Nair says, adding that sending governments may also start looking at new migration corridors in Africa and Europe.

Like many low- to middle-income countries, remittances from migrant workers play a significant role in the countries of South Asia: in India remittances are said to make up 3 per cent of GDP while in Nepal they account for 27 per cent.

It was predicted that the economic downturn triggered by the pandemic could have a massive impact on the money sent home by workers abroad, with an October 2020 report from the World Bank estimating that remittances in South Asia will fall from US$135 billion in 2020 to US$120 billion in 2021.

However, Nair says the impact of Covid-19 on global remittances is still unclear, with some South Asian countries reporting an even higher inflow of remittances than usual.

Shakirul Islam, the founding chair of Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program, a grassroots migrants’ organisation based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is also assessing the situation carefully. He tells Equal Times that research conducted by his organisaton with potential and returnee migrant workers (those who were forced to return during the pandemic) shows that more than 72 percent of them (among 398 people) are still waiting for the situation to improve before they return overseas.

But this is a ticking time economic time bomb, he warns. “Currently these workers are not getting any good jobs…if situation doesn’t get better in a year, then all migrant sending Asian countries will be facing a very tough time. We shouldn’t forget that there are no jobs at home at the moment. If these people can’t work in host countries either, then everything is going to be a problem.”

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