Spending time with families in villages does not bring any joy for them now. With chances of getting back to previous jobs – be it in Dhaka or in Kuwait – fading, they are worried about their living, their future
Villages are now more vibrant than ever.
Rural bazaars are crowded, tea-stalls are filled with customers, many of whom do not stay in villages this long in any given time.
They are workers in motor workshops, or shopping malls or restaurants. They are owners of small businesses – perhaps a road-side tea-stall or a hair salon. They were doing whatever they could for a living in the cities and towns.
Now they are forced into vacationing in their village homes since the general holidays enforced to contain the coronavirus outbreak threw them out of work.
Millions of them have joined thousands of expatriates who came home from abroad and got stuck due to the pandemic.
Spending time with families in villages does not bring any joy for them now. With chances of getting back to previous jobs – be it in Dhaka or in Kuwait – fading, they are worried about their living, their future.
From Bandarban to Dinajpur, Brahminbaria to Bogura, Chuadanga to Barishal, the situation is the same.
Jobs are scarce in villages. Some are trying their luck in farming vegetables, some are looking for money for starting a small business.
Many have run out of whatever cash they had with them, and borrowed money from NGOs to meet daily needs.
The Business Standard talked to a number of them to know how they were doing and what they were planning for the future.
Abul Kalam came home on leave from Kuwait and got stuck in the coronavirus outbreak. Six months have passed since then. The office he used to work in said his job contract would not be renewed. He has no idea what to do now to run his family.
"I am thinking of a small business, but can't decide until the situation improves," says Kalam of Babuganj village in Barishal.
Miraj Ali of Koyarkhali village of Jashore has a similar story to share. He lost his job in a filling station in Malaysia.
He came home in March for a wedding and in June, he turned jobless.
Motiur Rahman of Sonatola upazila of Bogura came home from Saudia Arabia in May and was supposed to go back by June 6. He has no idea whether he would be able to go back ever. He is now worried about repayment of the Tk2 lakh he borrowed from an NGO.
Manik Mia of Dhunat upazila of the district returned from Malaysia and his brother Ahmed Ronju flew in from Kuwait amid the Covid-19 outbreak. The cash they brought home has been used up and they do not know what comes next.
The story is more or less the same for Khyainuching Khiang of Bandarban sadar upazila, who returned from Macau of China and Kabir Hawladar, a Malaysia returnee of Barishal sadar upazila, or Reaz Maimun of Ramu in Cox's Bazar, who was running a business in Dubai, and Kuwait returnee Harez Ali of Chuadanga sadar.
They came home before or during the outbreak. With the possibility of getting back to their overseas jobs dimming and cash in hand running out, they are worried about the days ahead.
They are joined by millions of others, who returned to their village homes after losing jobs in cities and towns within the country.
They were workers of the informal sector that accounts for 43% of the GDP according to the BBS. The shutdown enforced to slow the outbreak has stalled their lives as well.
They lost their livelihood overnight and had to return to villages – a pandemic-induced trend termed "reverse migration".
The general holiday or shutdown was initially enforced for a week from March 26, then extended in phases for 66 days.
And the wait of millions of informal sector workers and small business operators lingered on. Though the business activities have resumed, the pace was not enough to absorb the full workforce as before.
Md Arif of Dinajpur sadar upazila was running a hair salon in Dhaka with a partner. He returned home since his shop was shut on March 25 and his family is now living on the incomes of his father and brother.
Sohel Rana of the same area lost his restaurant job in Dhaka and opened a laundry business in his village home just to earn Tk 20 or 30 a day.
Fahim Shahriar worked in a book shop at Andarkilla in Chittagong and earned Tk10,000 a month to support his mother and sister at home. Now he is out of a job.
Factory workers are no better either.
Anarul Huq lost his job as a cutting master in a Naraynagnj garment factory and has been staying in his village home in Chuadanga sadar upazila since then. He does not own any land to try vegetable farming nor has he got anything else to earn.
After losing his job in a garment factory in Dhaka, Hasan Ali returned to Jashore with his wife and a child. He is now staying with his brother's family.
Forkan Ali, now a 'former worker' of a Gazipur garment factory, tried his best for a job in Khulna, but failed.
Getting a job is even more impossible for Helena Begum, who is now back in her village home in Digholia upazila of Khulna. She was a domestic help, but her employers asked her to discontinue since the outbreak of coronavirus. "There is no work in the village. I am in distress with my children," she says.
Young Power in Social Action (YPSA) has surveyed some of the expatriates in Chattogram who have returned home during the pandemic. It found that 60% of the expatriates have already spent the money they brought with them. Now they are borrowing from relatives.
At least 50,000 expatriates came home on leave between January and May. They are not sure when they will be able to go back to work, said Abdul Gafur, manager of the social organization YPSA.
Jhilongja UP chairman of Cox's Bazar sadar Tipu Sultan said, "There are many expatriates in my union and some 50 are now stuck due to coronavirus outbreak. Some of them are now driving tom-tom for a living."
Local administrations do not keep records of how many expatriates are at risk of losing jobs. They do not have any idea how many people of the locality returned home after losing jobs in cities and towns within the country.
Deputy director of the Barishal employment and manpower office AKM Shahabuddin Khan says more than one lakh people of the district work abroad. On average 5,000 people used to go abroad for work every month from Barishal district before the pandemic. Overseas workers' migration has been stopped for the last 4/5 months, he informed.
According to the special branch of district police, about 4,500 expatriates returned home between March 1 and July 1. The Manpower office does not have any record of how many of them have lost jobs.
"We have no idea of how many people returned from Dhaka or abroad. It could be possible if there was initiative in the past. No such list is prepared at union parishad level," says Azizur Rahman, upazila nirbahi officer of Bogura sadar.
There are ways out
Economists shared their concerns about absorbing those 'new unemployed' into work as they think many of these returnees might stay back home and the rural economy does not have enough space for the additional workforce.
"This reverse migration can only be made beneficial if we can provide productive employment opportunities in rural areas and education, health and other utility services can be made available in rural areas," says Dr Sayema Haque Bidisha, professor of Economics at Dhaka University.
A number of policies, some of which may be long term, need to be considered to give them a sustainable livelihood, she stresses.
The government has allocated Tk100 crore for small-employment schemes in rural areas, while a Tk20,000 crore stimulus package has been announced for macro, small and medium enterprises (MSME). The allocation should be enhanced and conditions relaxed to make the offers effective, economists feel.
It needs to be ensured that the stimulus money reaches the targeted people properly, says Dr Monzur Hossain, senior research fellow of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS).
He believes that a longer moratorium on interest and principal repayment will help small business recoup losses and revive. Agriculture has never been a viable occupation and is not going to absorb the additional workforce, Dr Monzur said.
So, he suggested, agro-processing and other rural based activities should be supported to rejuvenate rural economy and create jobs in rural areas.
"VAT waiver or other special offers can be made to encourage relocation of small and cottage industries from cities to villages," he said.
Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation (PKSF) can have a crucial role to play in creating new jobs and self-employment opportunities in rural areas, says Md Abdul Karim, former principal secretary to the prime minister. Micro-enterprises are powerful job creators and if supported by appropriate policies and given easy access to formal finance, they can absorb the additional workforce, he believes.
PKSF has identified more than 6700 business clusters of 77 economic activities including agriculture, livestock, fisheries and manufacturing. Micro-insurance can encourage more activities in these sub-sectors and cushion the entrepreneurs against any sudden blow like the one struck by the Covid-19 pandemic, he said, referring to the one he introduced for cattle farming when he was the managing director of PKSF.
"More people will be willing to raise cattle if they see just a one-time premium of Tk200 can protect a Tk1 lakh cow in case of death or lost," Md Abdul Karim told The Business Standard.
TBS correspondents in Bandarban, Barishal, Bogura, Chuadanga, Dinajpur, Brahmanbaria, Jashore, Khulna, Laxmipur, Chattogram, Moulvibazar, Mymensingh, Rajshahi, Rangpur, Satkhira, Sylhet and Tangail have contributed to this report.