Ghulam Muhammad, 28, lives in Kot Radha Kishan outside of Lahore. Not long ago, he was sitting in his home thinking “If I can make it to Dubai, it can make a difference in my life. My younger siblings might become doctors or engineers.” He comes from a family of nine, with five brothers and two sisters.
Muhammad remembers the hunger and poverty that clung to their home and prevented his siblings from acquiring an education; his own father was a labourer who struggled to feed a family of nine mouths.
Muhammad hoped to avoid a life of economic desperation for himself, and applied to small jobs to make ends meet. His house, however, was still impoverished.
Muhammad soon met an agent who told him it would cost 3 to 4 lakhs to undertake the journey abroad. Muhammad sold his mother’s jewelry and asked relatives for help.
Muhammad, wide-eyed and hopeful, joined millions of other migrants from Pakistan and India who arrived in the Gulf with dreams in their eyes, ready for the promise of an improved household economy.
However, life in Dubai ended up being a disappointment. Muhammad would wake up at 4 am to work, and come back by 8 in the evening. He didn’t receive much break time for either lunch or dinner, and he complained that his work sites lacked clean drinking water.
“When we think of Pakistan and making it big, it isn’t that way in Dubai,” Muhammad tells me about his dashed dreams. All of his work amounted to a meagre monthly salary of 800 dirhams.
Each month, he weighed a costly calculation: how much would he keep for himself and how much would he send home? For six months, Muhammad worked tirelessly, but didn’t receive a wage. His company’s owner threatened him with deportation if he complained.
After six months, however, Muhammad’s parents called, requesting the money he had borrowed. Muhammad was tense; he didn’t have the money.
In the merciless Dubai heat, he was living on stale food, scant water, and no breaks. He felt like he was the “walking dead.”
Muhammad decided he would file a lawsuit in Dubai against his owner for not supplying wages and threatening him with deportation. His boss refused to appear in court, dragging the case in court for a year. He was eventually told he had to pay a 1,400 dirham overstay fine and leave. “They set the condition if I didn’t pay the file, I’d be sentenced to jail,” Muhammad says. Around that time, Muhammad received a call from his ill father requesting money for his hospital treatment. He had nothing to give.
Despite living in one of the UAE’s most developed cities, where millions of passengers and tourists pass each year, Muhammad realized that his high hopes would remain unfulfilled. His employer was continuing to deny him wages he was promised on paper. Most of the Gulf’s migrant workers originate from emerging South Asian economies like India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh, where dreams of prosperity drive their push out of their homeland for better wages. However, not everything that glitters is gold, as these workers sacrifice backbreaking labor for the promise of better livelihoods that may never materialize. Often, work sites involve performing labor in temperatures exceeding 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite working in substandard conditions, the only request workers have is getting paid on time. Forgoing wages is not an option as families in South Asia depend on a single migrant worker’s paycheck to survive. Wage delays may only push desperate families to borrow money, plunging them deeper into debt.
For low-wage workers like Muhammad, the only way to provide a real, long-term solution to poverty and hunger is to elevate Pakistan’s own GDP and create well-paying jobs at home. Most do not know their rights, the state does not offer job training or protect labourers, and many spend their time abroad in legal and financial stress.
A good opportunity is on the horizon: CPEC is a game-changer for migrant workers. If these labourers have opportunity at home, they will stay home in Pakistan instead of migrating to the Gulf, where they face numberless problems being paid on time. Pakistan officials believe this CPEC project will create 7 lakh jobs in the country. This project can become the golden economic door for Pakistanis, and prevent migration in the first place.
(Originally published in the Daily Balochistan Express, Quetta, Pakistan.)