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From Singapore to Bangladesh, returning workers face poverty and shame

Thousands of migrant workers who fled in the wake of the pandemic face impoverishment and shame at home.

Staff Writers
2 minute read
Thousands of migrant workers have been caught in the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Pexels
Thousands of migrant workers have been caught in the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Pexels

The pandemic is claiming many victims, the majority of them caught up in the economic fallout rather than falling ill from the virus itself.

Initially fearing illness and death from Covid-19, thousands of migrant workers fled back home.

Others were laid off in the pandemic-associated downturn and were forced to leave.

Both groups are facing impoverishment and shame.

When Krishnan Hariharasudhan’s employer in Singapore lost its 40-year contract with an engine oil manufacturer in April this year, he was one of many workers laid off.

He got a new job offer but his old company refused to transfer his work permit and put him on a repatriation flight to Tamil Nadu, India.

“I didn’t want to go home because the salaries are a third of what I used to get,” said 29-year-old Krishnan, who had worked as a manager earning US$1,200 a month.

As India and Bangladesh struggle with crashing economies and unprecedented unemployment, expat workers are reluctant to leave Singapore, and those already home are desperate to go back abroad.

S Irudaya Rajan, a migration expert at the Centre for Development Studies and a member of the Kerala task force for expats, said: “Many who returned in panic of Covid-19 are regretting it and are spending all their savings.”

Raj S, a 45-year-old construction machine operator who worked in Singapore for 14 years and returned to Tamil Nadu in July, says his farm income at home is poor, and debts are mounting.

“I left because I was very afraid I’ll get Covid-19 in the dormitories, but now I have to go back somehow,” he said.

However, the borders in Singapore remain closed to travellers from India and Bangladesh.

Some even face discrimination from locals at home who fear they could be carrying the virus.

Shipyard mechanic Anisur Rahman, who worked in Singapore for eight years, went home to Bangladesh in February on what was meant to be a month-long holiday.

But the pandemic struck and the 42-year-old was not able to fly back. He waited to rejoin work at his employer’s request but did not hear from them.

Last month, he found out from the Ministry of Manpower’s website – his employer did not inform him – that his work permit had been cancelled, leaving him without a job. Now his savings are gone and his situation looks hopeless.

Marina Sultana, director of programmes at the Dhaka-based Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit, asked: “Don’t employers have a responsibility for their employees when a crisis erupts?

“Countries like India and Bangladesh should collectively advocate to better protect their workers’ rights, and also identify job markets abroad to train returned migrants accordingly.”