The Saudi labour market is shrinking fast for Bangladeshis as locals are taking up foreign workers' jobs amid the kingdom's strong policy against undocumented migrants.
Fewer Bangladeshis are now migrating to the Middle Eastern country, traditionally the largest foreign labour market for Bangladesh, while more and more are returning home.
According to the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET), 187,224 Bangladeshi workers went to the kingdom from January to September this year with a monthly average of 20,802. The number was 551,308 last year with a monthly average of around 46,000.
Officials at Bangladesh Embassy in Riyadh said scores of Bangladeshis are returning from Saudi Arabia because job opportunities are drying up there. Besides, the Saudi authorities are now strictly enforcing the immigration laws, making it difficult for irregular foreign workers to stay there.
Talking to The Daily Star, Golam Moshi, Bangladesh Ambassador in Riyadh, said job opportunities for Bangladeshis and other foreign workers have shrunk because of the Saudi authorities' economic reforms.
Since October 3, more than 400 Bangladeshis returned home in three phases from Dammam Deportation Centre, said an official at the BMET Probasi Kalyan Desk at Dhaka airport on the condition of anonymity.
The official, however, could not say how many workers returned from Saudi Arabia in the last few months.
One of the returnees, 23-year-old Sajeeb Hossain, said he paid Tk 8.5 lakh to go to Saudi Arabia two years back, but the employer neither provided him a residence permit nor a job.
“I had to stay there without Iqama [residence permit] and worked at a company. Two weeks ago, police detained me and sent me back to Bangladesh on October 3,” the youth from Singair of Manikganj told this correspondent yesterday.
“I stayed in Saudi Arabia for two years, but could not save any money. What would I do now?”
Sajeeb said he met a number of Bangladeshis, who were facing similar problems in the kingdom.
He also alleged that many Saudi companies and Bangladeshi agents made money by hiring workers from Bangladesh but did not keep their promises of providing jobs and necessary documents.
Some of the returnees claimed that they were working in the kingdom legally, but were detained by police, kept at deportation centres and then deported.
“I had iqama [residence permit], yet I was detained when I went to a market in Riyadh. Police kept me at a detention centre and then deported me. What was my fault?” said 30-year-old Abu Yusuf after coming out of Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport yesterday afternoon.
The official at the BMET Probasi Kalyan Desk at the airport said, “This is for the first time I have seen some Bangladeshis return home despite having iqamas.”
The official said most of the returnees had worked in the kingdom for four to five years and overstayed their visas. Some of the migrant workers went to the kingdom less than a year ago.
Moshi said it is rare that someone having iqama would be deported from Saudi Arabia.
“In some cases, migrants are hired for a company, but they are employed at another company. This is illegal. But such practice has been in place for many years and the law enforcers were lenient. Now, the Saudi authorities are enforcing the law very strictly,” he told this correspondent over the phone yesterday.
If a migrant has iqama and works for the company that hired him, police cannot detain or deport him. In such cases, the employer protects him, said the diplomat.
“We intervene whenever we receive complaints from workers.”
The diplomat mentioned that almost 60 percent of the mobile phone shops in Riyadh were run by Bangladeshis, and around 80,000 Bangladeshis were involved in the business.
But in September last year, the Saudi authorities issued orders that foreigners would not be allowed to do such business. “As a result, they became unemployed. Many have returned home.”
The diplomat further said a large number of Saudis are now taking up jobs at hotels and also working as drivers, which they didn't do in the past.
Saudi Arabia is home to some two million Bangladeshis, who sent home Tk 110,247 crore last year.
At the beginning of 2017, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman introduced a levy to encourage companies to hire local workers.
This means any Saudi company that chooses to hire foreigners will pay a charge of $80 per worker each month, while companies that employ more foreigners than Saudi nationals are charged $106 per employee, reported Middle East Eye, a Saudi Arabian newspaper, on July 11.
The tax is likely to be raised next year to $133 per foreign employee, it reported.