Pakistan is among the leading exporters of labour to the oil-rich Arab states of the Persian Gulf. The situation of migrant workers in the Gulf region has deteriorated as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The Arab States of the Persian Gulf are among the most popular migrant worker destinations globally, with significant growth in recent years. Today, migrants constitute the majority of the populations in all six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries with the exception of Oman and Saudi Arabia. For example, in 2020, an estimated 88 percent of the population in the United Arab Emirates were migrants, 73 percent in Kuwait, 77 percent in Qatar, and 55 percent in Bahrain. The migrant-to-local labour ratio in the GCC states is also among the highest in the world. The majority of these migrant labourers are low-skilled or semi-skilled, employed in industries like construction, factory work (manufacturing), shipyard labour, food and hospitality, landscaping and gardening, and domestic work. A significant proportion of migrant workers in the Gulf region come from South Asia.
In mid-2020, 43.4 million people from South Asia were living outside their country of origin, making South Asia the sub-region with the highest number of emigrants globally. One of the major regions of destination of South Asian migrants is Western Asia, and here especially the oil-rich GCC countries.
Large-scale South Asian migration to the Gulf region started in the 1970s when the oil price boom increased the demand for foreign labor in infrastructure and development projects. In the 1980s migration from South Asia to the GCC countries increased even further, and except some return movements during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the 1990/91 Gulf war, the GCC countries have remained the main destination of migrant workers from South Asia ever since.
Today, the South Asia-Gulf migratory corridor is one of the world’s busiest migration corridors. Unemployment and low wages in South Asian countries are key drivers of these migration flows. In 2020, an estimated 3.5 million migrants from India and more than one million from Bangladesh were living in the United Arab Emirates alone. South Asian labour migrants are the backbone of the Gulf economy. Most of these labour migrants depart as temporary migrant workers, leaving their families behind.
South Asian labour migrants send large amounts of money to support family members and relatives who stayed behind in the country of origin. Globally, India, being the country with the largest number of emigrants in the world (stock of 18 million emigrants in 2020), remains the largest recipient of remittances (USD 83 billion in 2020) , but Pakistan and Bangladesh also rank among the world’s top ten remittance receiving countries, having received USD 26 billion and USD 22 billion respectively in 2020.
However, many South Asian migrants live under precarious conditions in the Gulf region. The South Asian migrant workforce in Gulf countries lacks a safety net in the face of crises, social security, and policies directed at their welfare, and enjoy little or no labour rights. The pandemic, company closures, border tightening, and the predatory nature of the Kafala sponsorship scheme have all added to their misery.
The Kafala system of foreign labour sponsorship, introduced the 1950s and maintained ever since, ties migrant workers in the GCC states to their employers who are responsible for their visa and legal status. The system was introduced to closely monitor the foreign workforce. It gives employers immense control over migrant workers and opens opportunities for exploitation. This system has embedded two critical implications for international migrants – protectionism and the absence of pathways for integrating into the larger society. As a result, migrant workers in the Gulf are barred from formally integrating into the socioeconomic context in their country of destination.
In the past, high unemployment among locals, economic crises, demographic imbalance, and the Arab spring have driven labour policy in the GCC countries towards the nationalisation of labour. Job chances for South Asian migrants, including those from Pakistan, have seen a declining trend as a result of such nationalisation policies. Additionally, work permit renewal costs and taxes have risen over time shaking the subsistence of migrants in these countries.
Pakistani migrant workers in the GCC states
After India, Pakistan is the largest exporter of labour to the Gulf States. With regard to the destination of labour migrants from Pakistan to the Gulf, Saudi Arabia has been the largest recipient since 1990, followed by the United Arab Emirates (see Table 1).
Table 1: Migrant stock from Pakistan in the GCC countries, 1990-2020
Source: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), International Migrant Stock 2020: Destination and origin, Table 1: International migrant stock at mid-year by sex and by region, country or area of destination and origin, 1990-2020. Externer Link: https://www.un.org/development/desa/pd/sites/ (accessed: 14-6-2022).
United Arab Emirates
The bulk of Pakistani migrants in the GCC states are single males who live in overcrowded labour camps. They share rooms and bathrooms in order to save money to send back home. COVID-19 had a discriminatory impact in these labour camps owing to the overcrowded, unsanitary living conditions.
Figure 1 shows a steady and evident increase in the Pakistani migrant stock in the GCC countries. The number of Pakistani migrants in the GCC states climbed from 902,311 in 1990 to 3,400,353 in 2020.
Neither the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 nor the global economic crisis in 2008/2009 or the introduction of the Nitaqat system in Saudi Arabia in 2011 resulted in a massive decline of the foreign workforce in the Gulf region. However, the unique nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with oil price volatility, resulted in unpredictably high levels of reverse migration. Pakistan, like many other South Asian countries, initiated repatriation efforts. The Pakistani government claims to have returned about 300,000 Pakistani nationals – 200,000 under a special flight operation and 100,000 under the normal flight operations –, including people evacuated from the United Arab Emirates (154,856), Saudi Arabia (63,595), Qatar (17,062) and Oman (11,792).
The Coronavirus pandemic has cast a spell over the future of Pakistan-Gulf migration, posing enormous health and livelihood concerns for the millions of Pakistanis working in the Gulf, as well as the families and communities that rely on them. The Pakistani government – just like governments of other countries that are dependent on the temporary emigration of labour in order to take away pressure of their labour markets – finds itself in a dilemma: the need to promote migration, on the one hand, and to protect migrants' rights in increasingly hostile receiving countries, on the other. Currently, there are two main development frameworks – The Agenda 2030 and the Global Compact for Migration – related to improving the plight of migrant workers which can be harnessed to rebalance issues associated with assimilation, return and reintegration of South Asian migrant workers in the Gulf. The Agenda 2030 and its broad-based Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) can be applied to migrant workers. A comprehensive migration management system for nations that send workers as well as those that receive them is urgently needed. Except for Sri Lanka, no South Asian country has an appropriate migration policy to protect the rights of emigrant nationals.
is Chairman of the International Institute of Migration and Development (IIMAD), India, and chair of the KNOMAD (the Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development) thematic working group on internal migration and urbanization, World Bank. He is editor of two Routledge series – India Migration Report and South Asia Migration Report.