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They crossed oceans to lift their families out of poverty. Now, they need help

Around the globe, the pandemic has jeopardized a vital artery of finance supporting hundreds of millions of families — remittances sent home from wealthy countries by migrant workers.

By: New York Times | London | Published: July 28, 2020 1:43:28 pm
bangladesh news, bangladesh migrant workers, coronavirus pandemic, world news, indian express Monwara Begum, center, with her children at her house near Dhaka, Bangladesh. As the pandemic destroys paychecks, migrant workers like Begum’s husband, Mahammed Heron, are sending less money home, threatening an increase in poverty from South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa to Eastern Europe and Latin America. (Salahuddin Ahmed/The New York Times)

Written by Peter S. Goodman

For more than a decade, Flavius Tudor has shared the money he has made in England with his mother in Romania, regularly sending home cash that enabled her to buy medicine.

Last month, the flow reversed. His 82-year-old mother sent him money so he could pay his bills.

Suffering a high fever and a persistent cough amid the coronavirus pandemic, Tudor, 52, could no longer enter the nursing home where he worked as a caregiver. So his mother reached into her pension, earned from a lifetime as a librarian in one of Europe’s poorest countries, and sent cash to her son in one of the wealthiest lands on earth.

“It’s very tough times,” he said. “I’m lost.”

Around the globe, the pandemic has jeopardized a vital artery of finance supporting hundreds of millions of families — remittances sent home from wealthy countries by migrant workers. As the coronavirus has sent economies into lockdown, sowing joblessness, people accustomed to taking care of relatives at home have lost their paychecks, forcing some to depend on those who have depended on them.

Last year, migrant workers sent home a record $554 billion, more than three times the amount of development aid dispensed by wealthy countries, according to the World Bank. But those remittances are likely to plunge by one-fifth this year, representing the most severe contraction in history.

The drop amounts to a catastrophe, heightening the near-certainty that the pandemic will produce the first global increase in poverty since the Asian financial crisis of 1998. Some 40 million to 60 million people are expected this year to fall into extreme poverty, which the World Bank defines as living on $1.90 a day or less.

Diminishing remittances are both an outgrowth of the crisis gripping the world and a portent of more trouble ahead. Developing countries account for 60% of the world economy on the basis of purchasing power, according to the International Monetary Fund. Less spending in poorer nations spells less economic growth for the world.

Like the pandemic that has delivered it, the slide in remittances is global. Europe and Central Asia are expected to suffer a fall of nearly 28% in the wages sent home from other countries, while sub-Saharan Africa sees a drop of 23%. South Asia appears set for a 22% decline, while the Middle East, North Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean could absorb a reduction of more than 19%.

Overall, the pandemic has damaged the earning power of 164 million migrant workers who support at least 800 million relatives in less affluent countries, according to an estimate from the United Nations Network on Migration.

“We are talking about a staggering number of people who are benefiting from these remittances,” said Dilip Ratha, lead economist on migration and remittances at the World Bank in Washington.

Venturing overseas for work is laced with danger, exposing migrant workers to dishonest recruitment agents, exploitative employers, and the physical perils of manual labor. It is also a singularly effective means of upward mobility.

Households receiving remittances eat better, and are more likely to continue their children’s education rather than pressing them into the workforce. Babies born into homes receiving remittances tend to be higher in birth weight.

Three years ago, Mahammed Heron left his village outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, for work in the energy-rich nation of Qatar, tracing a route pursued by tens of millions of South Asian migrants.

He borrowed 400,000 Bangladeshi taka (about $4,700) from relatives and engaged a local recruitment agent that bought him a plane ticket, secured a work visa and promised him a job. This was a monumental amount of money in Bangladesh, more than twice the national income per capita (about $1,855). His wife, Monowara Begum, was terrified. Her first husband — Heron’s older brother — had been killed by a drunken driver more than a decade earlier in Saudi Arabia, where he had been working as a hospital janitor.

But if the prospect of her husband venturing to the Persian Gulf was frightening, staying put seemed riskier still.

Her family lived in a shack made of corrugated aluminum that was vulnerable to the torrential rains of the monsoon. They had no running water. Heron earned perhaps 300 taka (about $3.50) per day working in the surrounding rice paddies. They could rarely afford meat or fish, subsisting on rice and potatoes. Her oldest son had a heart condition that required medicine.

The only way out of poverty was to invest in her children’s education, but tuition payments reached 6,000 taka (more than $70) per year.

“Our financial situation was never good,” Begum explained in an interview via a video link, as birds chirped loudly in the village. She reluctantly agreed to the plan.

When Heron landed in Doha in September 2018, the furnace-like heat was not the only shock: The recruitment agency had failed to line up a job. “I was cheated,” he said in an interview by video.

He looked frantically for work, eventually securing a position at a staffing agency that sent him on a variety of assignments — cleaning offices, landscaping and digging into the sandy earth to lay fiber optics cable.

Heron was paid a monthly salary of 900 Qatari rial (about $250) and assigned a bunk inside a dormitory room he shared with 15 other men, all Bangladeshis.

Every two or three months, he sent home about 30,000 taka (about $350), but it all went toward his debt — still only one-fourth repaid.

Then, in May, with the coronavirus shutting down much of life in Doha, the agency stopped paying the workers, Heron said. He suffered an asthma flare-up that required hospitalization, absorbing all his cash. He stopped sending money home.

For Bangladesh overall, remittances received from other countries plunged by 23% in April compared with a year earlier, and were down by 13% in May, according to the nation’s central bank, though June saw an increase.

Schools remain shut in Bangladesh, but whenever they open, Begum sees no way to afford sending her 16-year-old son, Hasan.

She has been urging Hasan to find work — perhaps in construction, maybe at an auto repair shop. He has been resisting, preferring to stay at home and read textbooks.

“I want to continue my studies,” he said. He imagines a life as a software engineer. His face lights up as he describes this — a slender teenager, standing shirtless in front of his shack as roosters crow, envisioning himself in a shiny office, leaning over a computer.

Every few days, he and his mother use a smartphone app and a prepaid internet card to talk to Heron, stranded in the dormitory in Qatar. He is too ill to work, he said, but lacks money to fly home. After another year, the staffing company is contractually obligated to pay for his return flight. He bides his time, hoping his health improves, hoping his pay resumes, hoping his own children escape his fate.

“I dream that my sons will do something in their life,” he said.

Many migrant workers are now contending with two emergencies at once — a loss of income combined with the menace of the virus itself.

Tudor, the Romanian immigrant living in Britain, left his home region of Transylvania when he was in his early 20s. Abandoning a perilous life as a coal miner, he landed first in Spain, where he worked in security. As the global financial crisis plunged the country into a veritable depression in 2009, he moved to Britain, settling in Weston-super-Mare, a seaside town of 76,000 people, about 150 miles west of London.

He took care of older people through stints arranged by staffing companies. His most recent job was at a for-profit nursing home called The Heathers. He was making 848 pounds (about $1,070) a week. His wife was cleaning rooms at a hotel, bringing home 1,200 pounds ($1,536) a month.

As the coronavirus emerged, his wife saw her hours reduced. Hospitals began shifting older patients stricken with the virus to nursing homes.

Tudor soon came down with a fever and a cough, forcing him to stop going to work. He twice tested negative for the coronavirus, but has been unable to secure another job.

In recent years, Britain has sharply reduced government support programs for the jobless and those struggling to pay their bills, folding them into a lump sum scheme known as universal credit.

Tudor has traded his paycheck for a 1,000-pound ($1,280) monthly universal credit payment, cutting his income roughly in half. His eyeglasses have broken, but he can’t afford to replace them. When the rent came due last month, he paid it only with the help of his mother, back in Romania.

“The world doesn’t know where it’s going,” he said. “No society can handle this situation.”

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