Protecting overseas Pakistani workers —Syed Mohammad Ali

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Although a country like Pakistan can hardly coerce any of the Middle Eastern states to become more sympathetic towards its migrant workers, there are some more subtle means to ensure that this does happen in effect

The State Bank of Pakistan has announced another significant rise over this past year in remittances being sent home by overseas Pakistanis, which is pleasantly surprising given the massive flight of capital and lack of new foreign investments coming into the country. However, not enough thought is going into how to maximise the potential development impact of this significant contribution that is being made by our citizens who are working outside Pakistan.

There is ample research from around the world to indicate how improved standards of living, better health and education, and financial asset accumulation are being made possible due to overseas remittances to otherwise poor and neglected households. Even the World Bank has identified remittances as having become the largest source of external finance for developing countries, more so than foreign direct investment or even foreign aid.

Migrant labour, however, remains a complex and changing phenomenon, the varied implications of which must be recognised and dealt with in order to for it to have a positive development impact.

According to the Ministry of Labour, over seven million Pakistanis are living abroad, including illegal immigrants and over-stayers. A major proportion of Pakistani migrant workers are in the Gulf region, as this part of the world has become a favourite destination since the onset of the Middle Eastern oil boom in the 1970s.

Remittance flows from such migrants became the single most important factor in explaining a rapid decline in poverty in Pakistan during the 1980s. After experiencing a slump in the 1990s, remittances to Pakistan are again becoming significant. The State Bank noted a four-fold increase in remittances between 2001 and 2003.

However, this current increase in remittances to Pakistan since 9/11 does not appear to have been the result of any significant increase in the outflows of migrants. A more plausible reason is that an increasing amount of remittance is now coming in through official, rather than previous unofficial channels, in the face of greater scrutiny of bank accounts abroad.

Yet despite this increased routing of remittances through official channels, there is an evident lack of proper remittance utilisation mechanisms, which could help improve the lives of poor families that have been left behind by the migrants. Most migrant families are not able to save or invest the remittances being sent to them due to a lack of awareness and the non-existence of investment opportunities at the grassroots level. They are thus instead used primarily for meeting consumption needs, which have limited socio-economic benefits.

On the other hand, the continued influx of migrant workers has created a serious imbalance with traditional migrant receiving countries, a reality that has also not received any significant attention by our policy makers. The growing indigenisation of the work force and the increasing unattractiveness of the work environment for immigrant workers already employed in Middle Eastern countries are now evident. There is a wide difference between wages of local and non-local workers employed in the same sector, making the survival of expatriates difficult due to increases in levies associated with work permits and other living essentials.

Besides economic discrimination, the human rights of migrant workers from countries like Pakistan are also at stake due to the absence of anti-discrimination legislation and indifference on the part of our own policy makers to ensure protection of the nation’s migrant workers.

In response to this changing policy environment within the Middle Eastern countries themselves, other migrant sending countries in the region like Sri Lanka have rightly begun taking steps which not only continue to encourage their citizens to work overseas but also focus on formulating institutions and laws to protect the rights of their migrant citizens. In 2006, India also announced new welfare initiatives for its migrant workers, including life and medical insurance schemes, and a provision to enable them to pursue legal cases in their countries of work.

Besides regulating the inflow of remittances, the Pakistani government must also take much needed steps to ensure the welfare of its migrants, or else their conditions will continue to worsen due to the oversupply of skilled, better trained, and cheaper human resources from other developing countries.

Although a country like Pakistan can hardly coerce any of the Middle Eastern states to become more sympathetic towards its migrant workers, there are some more subtle means to ensure that this does happen in effect. One apparent way would be for more migrant sending countries like our own to ratify ILO Conventions 97 (on Migration for Employment) and 143 (on Migrations in Abusive Conditions and the Promotion of Equality of Opportunity and Treatment of Migrant Workers), as well as the United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers. Such moves would in turn help increase pressure on migrant receiving countries to do the same.

The government of Pakistan could also take steps like those being implemented by other regional countries to protect their migrant population. While Pakistan’s Emigration Ordinance of 1979 does recognise the need for pre-departure briefings as well as support at the destination in the form of community protection officers in migrant host countries, the effective implementation of these measures remains elusive. Providing effective pre-departure training about their rights and responsibilities in different receiving countries, instructing its embassies abroad to remain in touch with the migrant citizens, and putting in place a wider range of options for returning migrants to continue to remain productive would all be steps in the right direction.

There is also an urgent need to clamp down on irregular migration by supposed agents who flout local laws to make profits by engaging in human smuggling. Moreover, given the evident feminisation of migration across the developing world, it is about time for the government of Pakistan to give more thought to issues concerning female migration, since it does not seem to have an explicit policy in this regard yet.

While Pakistan does have a Ministry of Labour, Manpower, and Overseas Pakistanis as well as a Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment, there is need for them to coordinate their efforts to devise a more holistic approach to ensure developmental benefits of our migrant labour at a personal, societal and national level.

The writer is a researcher. He can be contacted at

Reproduced by permission of Daily Times\01\27\story_27-1-2009_pg3_3

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