Migrant Workers: Slaves of the Twenty-First Century

As soon as Murad Bux arrived, his 13-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter were introduced to him. He hugged them and wept. He was a servant of an Arab Shaikh in Qatar and his master had allowed him to visit his family after 12 years for a duration of two months. When he was asked how his life had gone in Qatar. His reply was: “For me, each day has been as long as a year. As if the time was hanged and the globe had stopped revolving around the sun”.

This is the story of thousands of Pakistani migrant workers in the Arab Sheikhdoms. Most of them are illiterate with some exceptions. Although, holding a degree does not count much, because, these migrants, whatever be their qualification, are eager to undertake a job as inferior as that of dishwasher. Thanks to Arab Shaiks, at least they have an indiscriminate attitude towards the migrants as far as their academic qualification is concerned. For them, all are migrants, who ought to be blessed to breath in the air of Arab soil.

Beside the unwritten agreement of “Representation without taxation never; and taxation without representation never” it seems that there is another agreement of this nature between the wealthy citizens of the Arab Shaikhdoms including Saudi Arabia and their rulers: “No rights for migrant workers.”

They are clever enough in accepting foreign workers instead of natives and know very well that these migrants do not have any voice at all. They silently accept and digest what comes to them from their masters. There is a simple package of punishment for them if they protest: “Imprisonment for a limited time and then their deportation to home countries” or better to say “Throwing them again in to the well of poverty”.

The world has been striving against slavery for more than one century. It has been successful in elimination of the traditional form of slavery, but, in practice slavery still does exist under changed skins and migrant workers in Arab countries are good examples in this regard.

As matter of fact, slavery is not an easy phenomenon that can be disbanded through legislation on the paper; it is a mind-set which rules over the behavior. The Shaikh of 21st century behave with a migrant in a way and with an attitude that his ancestor used to approach a black slave a century back. The difference between the two is that, the old slave was forcibly enslaved while the new slave takes risk, borrow money and voluntarily go there to be enslaved. The former was enslaved because of his weakness and the later gets himself enslaved because he is poor and hungry.

The United Arab Emirates, GCC countries (including Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman) and Saudi Arabia have become important hubs of MNCs during last few decades. The process of globalization and the corporate mode of economy has accelerated the tendency of working over there; therefore, thousands of workers ranging from India and Pakistan to Russia and Philippine as well as other European and African countries are pouring into those countries. They are underprivileged people that form one side have been disappointed to find livelihoods in their own countries and on the other side, are inspired by high value currencies of those states.

With growing number of migrant workers and huge inflow of home remittances their importance in international political economy is gradually being increased. It can be measured by the World Bank’s recent report according to that, remittances are the largest source of external finance for developing countries, exceeding the amount they receive in foreign direct investment or foreign aid every year. For instance, Pakistan received a record $5.49 billion as workers’ remittances during the first 10 months of the current fiscal year against 4.6 billion of Foreign Direct Invest (FDI).

Some countries such as India are looking the process as an opportunity and are making efforts to exploit it positively for poverty reduction and economic vulnerability. They encourage their citizens to work overseas and send remittance. Moreover, they are developing institution as well as laws to protect the rights of their migrant citizens in their respective host countries.

In 2006 the Indian government announced new welfare initiatives for its migrant workers according to them a smart card would be issued to all Indian emigrant workers for their identification. They would get life insurance as well as medical insurance that could be used for emergency treatment abroad. They will also get a cover to fight legal cases in their working countries.

Furthermore, the Indian migrant workers are being provided with prerogatives and special privileges. Recently the Indian government passed a law which says that any government employee can go and work abroad while his or her job would be reserved with full payment.

The Indian law makers, as far as the aforementioned law is concerned, kept two factors in their mind. First, a person working overseas would send remittance, which would help for maintaining balance of payment. Second, a vacancy will be created and consequently would be filled with some one else on the doll.

Although Pakistani migrants have a long existence in the Gulf countries, they are among the most vulnerable workers. Most of them work under harsh conditions in order to make an earning to the extent of nourishing their children or more optimistically to construct a four-wall for them. Worse than that, their conditions are going from bad to worse due to oversupply of skilled, better trained, and cheaper human resource. However, there are some internal factors responsible for their misery:

· Pakistani workers are employed in low profile jobs such as watchmen, gardener and cleaner because of their little education and undeveloped skills.

· They are mostly working far away from the main cities. Perhaps they come to the city only at the time of their departure-to and arrival-from Pakistan.

· Pakistani government and its representatives are very careless and apathetic towards them. A huge budget is yearly being spent by Pakistani foreign missions in the Gulf countries under the name of providing service to fellow citizens while it is a breath-breaking job for Pakistani migrant workers to cross their main gates.

· Pakistani workers are not being provided with any kind of legal support, skill development trainings and other facilities, and there is no initiative by the government of Pakistan to make them aware of their rights.

· There are many civil society organizations campaigning for the protection of the rights of the workers in Pakistan. They are organizing workshops and consultations with stakeholders, conducting research, and directly or indirectly applying pressure upon the government for welfare of the worker class, but the migrant part of the labor issue in Pakistan is remained intact.

Finally it is to be noted that some times there are some whisperings highlighted in the news indicating that the government is about to set a mechanism to regulate the huge inflow of remittances, but they rarely talk about the senders of these remittances. There is no initiative neither in state nor civil society level to protect these ill-fated workers against barbaric trends of their unbridled employers.

Abdol Moghset Bani Kamal is a research associate, in the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER)