Coronavirus: Tens of thousands of residents return as UAE eyes jobs recovery

Diplomats and recruiters speak of cautious optimism as many people who took repatriation flights begin to return

A growing number of workers  are returning to the Emirates after widespread repatriations at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

Hundreds of thousands of people boarded flights home in the initial months of the outbreak as businesses closed and staff were placed on unpaid leave.

Several months on, however, and a cautiously optimistic tone is being struck as the economy recovers and communities rebound from a challenging period.

Daily food drives organised from March through to June have subsided as people return to jobs in the UAE.

More than 430,000 Indians have gone home since May, along with about 80,000 Pakistanis, 40,000 Filipinos and 20,000 Bangladeshis, their embassies told The National.

We have almost 60,000 who have come back to the UAE

Not everyone who boarded planes home lost jobs, with many on expired visitor visas and others taking annual leave.

“The Indian community is the biggest and that is why it was impacted the most, especially in the first wave of the pandemic,” said Pavan Kapoor, India’s ambassador to the UAE.

Officials worked with construction and retail companies to send workers back to their home towns.

“Big companies who had 1,000 to 2,000 workers wanted to take them back,” Mr Kapoor said.

“But we have almost 60,000 who have come back to the UAE. The bulk were those stuck in India during the lockdown who got approvals to come in.”

Recruiters eye brighter times on the horizon

Recruiters said middle to senior-level positions have steadily opened up in the private and government sectors.

“The focus is definitely on niche senior roles requiring specialist skills and experience. These roles also allow us to headhunt abroad as they are willing to relocate the right candidate,” said Rebecca Drinnan, managing director of Mena Recruit, which specialises in the legal sector.

While many international law firms and multi-national companies have a recruitment freeze, she said there was an increase in positions opening up with other clients, including in the government sector.

Ms Drinnan described the outlook as positive. Her firm is looking to fill 30 positions, more than double the number this time last year.

“We are witnessing a steady increase in client instructions and there are talks of a strong Q1 recruiting for 2021,” she said.

Amy Butler, managing director at Seeker Group, another recruitment company, is also looking to fill roles with non-profit groups, the education sector, marketing, conglomerates and start-ups.

“We found many of our clients put the majority of their hiring on hold – it was a difficult time for recruitment agencies in the region," she said.

"But in the past month we have seen a surge in activity and an increase in roles.

“We are extremely hopeful of seeing a return to normal staffing levels, we remain optimistic about market conditions.”

Covid-19 a reminder of the need to plan ahead

The pandemic has highlighted the need to set aside savings, particularly when a resident family's sole breadwinner was made redundant.

"One lesson is please put [money] aside for a rainy day because a fair number of people earning considerably well lost their jobs," said Mr Kapoor.

"Nobody planned that something like this would happen so dramatically.

“Others who are secure in their jobs need to value their jobs more.”

Before the pandemic and repatriations, there were about 3.4 million Indians in the Emirates and about 1.6 million Pakistanis.

Pakistan, too, has moved past the challenge of residents queuing up outside the embassy and consulate to register for repatriation flights.

Officials said about half of the 80,000 Pakistanis who left had lost their jobs.

“It’s not a crisis situation any more,” said Ghulam Dastagir, Pakistan's ambassador to the UAE.

Pakistani citizens who live in Dubai line up outside Dnata. They’ve received a confirmation call from the consulate regarding their repatriation flights. Some are flying back tonight.
(Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)


“People who were laid off and put on unpaid leave were short of cash and supplies. It was not possible to live here without a salary.

“It was a challenge for people working here for years. They have had to plan settlement back at home.

“But people with valid visa for the UAE are now coming back so they can rejoin companies.”

Since June, Pakistani residents can book flights home directly and do not require consular approval.

Officials worked with community groups to support those without funds.

The 700,000-strong Filipino community in the Emirates was also hit, with about 40,000 boarding flights home.

The number of repatriation requests has slowed recently.

“Since the UAE opened we see more people going back to work,” said Paul Cortes, Philippines consul general in Dubai.

“Many Filipinos work in the retail industry, in malls and stores and we have seen these open. There are still people intending to go home but there has been a reduction in the number of requests.”

Confusion about the dates of visas extension and amnesty cover caused several to return instead of paying fines.

Others have switched to visitor visas to stay in the country legally.

Another large group that struggled was the 500,000 strong Bangladeshi community, of which about 20,000 departed.

Repatriation rush slows as many return to the UAE

"The issue is that SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] owned by Bangladeshis are hit and they are trying to rebound as soon as possible,” said Mohammed Abu Zafar, Bangladeshi ambassador to the UAE.

“Ordinary workers have felt the pinch of Covid infections and a good number of Bangladeshis lost their jobs when companies shut.”

A few thousand residents away on annual leave have returned to work in the UAE, giving the community hope for the future.

“There is no longer a rush of people going home,” Mr Zafar said.

“Those working as doctors, in health care have come back to full employment.

“This is an extraordinary time. We must have patience, remain cool until the situation improves.”