Bangladeshi migrants look to better future as Maldives tourism thrives despite pandemic

Shakhawat Hossain fell in trouble after losing his job as the maintenance supervisor at a luxury resort in the Maldives when the coronavirus pandemic put global tourism in a tailspin in 2020.

As the archipelago remains a popular holiday destination despite the coronavirus pandemic, the Bangladeshi man returned to the Maldives on Friday as the resort recalled him after 15 months.

The US-Bangla Airlines plane from Dhaka to Male carried at least 10 other Bangladeshis who have been called back by their employers in the island nation.

With a population of around half a million, the Maldives had some 180,000 Bangladeshi expatriates, including tens of thousands of undocumented workers, living in its islands in 2020, according to a report of the International Labour Organization.

The number of Bangladeshis in the Maldives varies between 145,000 and 230,000 over time. Workers become undocumented when they leave jobs without the employers’ consent in line with the rules.  

Almost all the hotels, resorts and shops in the Maldivian capital Male have at least one Bangladeshi worker. Bangladeshis also work as drivers, mechanics, electricians or carpenters.

Shakhawat Hossain on a US-Bangla Airlines flight from Dhaka to Male. Photo: Golam Mortuja

Badal, a Bangladeshi driver from Moulvibazar who works in Male now, can speak Hindi, Maldivian language Dhivehi and Tamil, aside from Bangla, and a little English.

Badal, who gave a single name, returned home after the pandemic hit the global

economy. He headed back to the Maldives four months ago as the situation improved.

Kausar, a worker at a clothing shop who also gave a single name, could not return home even after losing his job at the onset of the pandemic because he did not have valid documents. He feared he would not be able to go back to the Maldives if he leaves the country. He later got his job back.

Shakib Prince, a native of Chandpur, lost his job when the owner shut down the restaurant he was working at after the workers, including Shakib, contracted COVID-19. Now he works at a coffee shop after struggling for survival for almost a year.

“I had worked as a housekeeper, or at a corner of a restaurant kitchen for survival. Now the situation has improved. We are getting work again,” said Shakib, adding that he was planning to travel back to Bangladesh in January 2022.     

Nearly 16,000 Bangladeshi migrants returned home from the Maldives in the last nine months of 2020, according to the expatriates’ welfare desk at Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka. Some 11,500 of them had valid documents, while the others travelled with special permission.

The desk reported that they returned after losing their jobs due to the pandemic.

Shakib Prince at a coffee shop in Male. Photo: Golam Mortuja

Milon Hossain from Cumilla, who works at a restaurant in Male, said the Bangladeshis who were employed by companies did not lose their jobs despite the pandemic as tourists continued to arrive.

The Maldives saw overall arrivals in the first nine months of 2021 fall just 12 percent versus the same period of 2019, according to Reuters.

But the Maldives stopped taking workers from Bangladesh in 2019, Milon said.

Bangladeshis who are working illegally in the Maldives after arriving with tourist visa can become legal workers if they apply as a worker of a company, according to him.

He believes strong efforts by the Bangladesh mission in the Maldives will create an opportunity for Bangladeshi workers to travel legally to the archipelago.

“We’ve heard that the prime minister will visit the Maldives. We always say she should talk to the authorities to expand the Maldivian labour market for Bangladeshis,

because it is impossible to earn the same amount by working in many other countries.”

Milon sent home Tk 1 million in around two years amid the pandemic.

Bangladeshis travelling to the Maldives queue for check-in at Shahahjalal International Airport in Dhaka.  Photo: Golam Mortuja

Remittances from the Maldives more than doubled to $44.74 million in 2019-20 fiscal year from the remittances of 2018-19. The amount slightly rose past $46 million in 2020-21 financial year.

Shariful Islam Hasan, programme head at BRAC Migration, said the government should take quick steps to legalise the undocumented Bangladeshis in the Maldives because they are deprived of fair pay and other rights. The government also needs to work on sending new workers to the Maldives, he said.

Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, during his visit to Dhaka to join the celebrations of Bangladesh’s golden jubilee of independence and the birth centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in March, urged the government to send doctors and nurses.

Hasina then requested him to legalise the undocumented Bangladeshis.

As the high number of migrants raised the demand for travel between Bangladesh and the Maldives, US-Bangla Airlines last month launched direct flights on the Dhaka-Male route.

US-Bangla Managing Director Abdullah Al Mamun said the airlines has reduced the cost of one-way travel on the route to Tk 25,000 from Tk 65,000 per flight