Rethinking labour migration

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Pakistan has long been a major exporter of human resource, primarily to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries including Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar, and receives substantial foreign remittances sent by the expatriates every year. Opportunities opened up for Pakistani workers in the Gulf region soon after the boom in the oil sector and the development that followed in 1970s.

Data shows that this export of human resource continues. From 2003 to 2015, a total of 5.4 million Pakistani workers went overseas for employment, of which around 97 percent headed to the GCC region. During FY2015-2016, the foreign remittances sent by overseas Pakistanis were around $19.9 billion, which close to what was earned through exports of goods and services from the country. The highest share comes obviously from those working in Saudi Arabia and the UAE as these countries host nearly 93 percent of all Pakistani workers who have gone abroad for work.

The figures look good on paper, due to which hardly anybody tries to go beyond these and look into the challenges and opportunities attached with this phenomenon. It is an open secret that labour migration from Pakistan has practically been an unregulated affair though certain checks and systems have been put in place by the government.

Anyone living in a region that has a concentration of international labour migrants’ families would tell that fake recruitment companies, agents, sub-agents etc operate in such areas without any fear and sell visas to aspiring expat workers at exorbitant rates. Ironically, relatives and friends charge even more for work visas.

This trade is prospering despite the fact that it is illegal to sell visas that come from foreign companies offering jobs free of cost. So, what happens most of the time is that people not fit for certain jobs are hired and kept in the dark about what lies in store for them in the countries they are going to. These poor individuals are already under the burden of loans acquired to buy visas and have to pay them back over time. The worst is in store for those who find that the salaries and other perks promised by the agents are not there at all and that they have to work for far less in highly unfavourable conditions.

The state of affairs has been such for decades, but the need of the time is that labour migration should no more be left at the mercy of crooked agents and visa sellers. There must also be focus on the export of skilled workers who can land high-paying jobs rather than sending unskilled labourers who somehow manage to buy azaad (open) visas from the market. They end up harming genuine job seekers in two ways. First, they are ready to work for very low salaries and, second, they strengthen the impression that Pakistan can only provide uneducated and unskilled labourers who can do basic work.

The state’s intervention had never been as essential as it is today and there is a reason for that. With a persistent fall in global oil prices, the economies of the Gulf region have suffered unprecedentedly and now these countries are looking for non-oil based revenues. Saudi Arabia has announced it will foccus on manufacturing and tourism in its future economic plans.

Short of funds, the Saudis had to delay payments to construction companies – leading to layoffs of employees in large numbers. Pakistani workers have paid a heavy price as they are mostly employed in the construction sector and its allied trades. A lot of them have lost jobs and there are projections that may others will face the same fate in times to follow.

This situation calls for the government to rethink labour migration and follow the principle of ‘work smart, not hard’, where highly skilled workers can earn good wages without making their lives miserable. As per a study commissioned by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), during the last one decade, more than 80 percent of Pakistani migrant workers went abroad in ten categories – labourer, driver, mason, technician, carpenter, electrician, agriculturalist, steel fixer, mechanic and plumber.

The share of labourers in 2015 was the largest (at 36.3 percent), followed by drivers (at 14.8 percent), masons (at 6.6 percent) and technicians (at 4.3 percent). All these categories are either low skilled or skilled but not in high demand in the current scenario.

It is the time the government focused on tapping the potential that exists in other sectors as well as exploring new markets for migrant labourers. Some market assessments carried out in the recent past have identified huge potential for Pakistani workers in Gulf region in the hospitality sector (professional cooks, chefs, barista, travel and tour operators), the garments sector (fashion designers, stitching machine operators), in information and communication technology (web designer, social media marketers), in healthcare and as security guards and beauticians.

The government can help develop a skilled and certified workforce in these sectors and link it with prospective employers through the official channels, make registered overseas employment promoters strictly implement the code of conduct on ethical recruitment, launch a crackdown on illegal visa sellers, fix minimum wages at which workers in different categories join overseas jobs and activate the dormant staff at Pakistani missions abroad to explore good job opportunities for the people of Pakistan.

The government must also create awareness among the masses at a local level about legal and safe migration and crackdown on mafias regardless of their status and affiliations. The policy of disengagement and oversight the government has followed may cause irreparable loss to the country’s image, economy and overseas workforce if still adhered to.

(Originally published in The News, Pakistan.)

1 comments on “Rethinking labour migration”

    • Sujata Madhok
    • December 15, 2016

    Interesting how all these findings and suggestions apply to India as well. Much of our labour is just as low skilled and vulnerable to fraudulent agents, fake passports and visas, indifferent government and diplomats, and exploitative employers in the Gulf countries.

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