Alejandro Portes Makes Stunning Comments on Labor Situation in the Gulf

The plight of laborers appears to be more gruesome in the Gulf, where the expatriate workers’ vulnerability is greater than that of illegal immigrants in the US and Europe, a leading international expert on migration has said.

Alejandro Portes, director of the Center for Migration & Development at the Princeton University, US, told Gulf Times: “This is a peculiar situation. Because even the illegal residents in the US and Europe can at least change employers as they are not attached to a single one.”

“Where there’s a migrant sponsorship system, such as the one in the region, powerless migrants can undergo greater exploitation. That always happens. By not being able to switch jobs a situation is created where the worker’s vulnerability can be abused,” said Portes, who has written some 220 articles and chapters on national development, international migration and related topics.

“Migrants all over the world are in a pretty powerless position. The very fact of moving abroad leads to a situation of powerlessness. That is inevitable. But, on the other hand it can be corrected,” Portes noted.

“You can have a labor system in which a migrant can come in, pay something and can be free to choose among employers; which not only reduces the vulnerability but is also good for the country because it stimulates competition between different firms,” Portes suggested.

According to him, a change in the current system of sponsorship in the GCC is ‘inevitable.’

“If these countries continue to import labor to have their countries built and not treat them rationally, there will be international protests and domestic protests by these groups, which could actually create a situation of political instability,” Portes observed.

Latest estimates show that there are close to 1.4 million ‘guest workers’ in Qatar, with close to 1 million low-income laborers.

When asked about the general muteness of international labor-rights organizations, Portes pointed out that it would take some time. “There had been systemic reports from the US State Department on the issue. It will take time. The pressure is likely to increase as the abuses get documented. That always happens.”

“Indeed, one of the things that these countries should avoid is this kind of international condemnation of being seen as abusing laborers. For example, China is a great nation, but it has a lot of public relations problems. So if a country wants to move to the First World or to be the centre of the global economy, it not only has to be wealthy and developed, but it also has to abide by basic conventions in terms of human and civil rights,” Portes said.

According to him, one of the reasons why the cases of migrant abuses don’t get international attention is because regional governments are verbally and through laws saying “they are acting to curb non-human practices.”

“But there remains a gap between what is said and what is done. This is where international committees such as ILO and others have to pay attention as to what governments are saying since they deal with them. But again this takes time.”

“I do know that if this gap continues, there will be a reaction. And not only from official bodies, but increasingly from effective trans-national activists that worry about labor rights.”

“And if nothing changes then you know what goes around comes around,” Portes added.

The professor was in Doha as part of the Carnegie Mellon Qatar Campus’s Distinguished Lecture Series.

Source: Gulf Times comments: Portes made some very interesting comments here. It is always encouraging to hear from a person who fully understands the situation. When he talked about a reaction if the "gap" continues, we felt vindicated by this site.