The Allure Of Working Abroad Provides No Respite To Pakistani Labour Classes

It was a happy day for Amjad Khan* when he learnt from his friend about an opportunity to work as an electrical engineer in Dubai. 30-year-old Amjad Khan is a graduate in electrical engineering from a university in Karachi. He thought that this was a great opportunity to earn a good salary and gain work experience in a foreign country. He contacted his friend’s contact in Dubai, and was reassured that “it is an electric engineer job for graduated engineers and they will pay travel and accommodation allowances." So Amjad completed the application process and was soon in Dubai with “high hopes and big dreams” in his words. He was told to report to work in 3 days. Alas, when he did, he found himself hired for the job of office help. This was a far cry from the work envisioned by the ambitious university graduate and he decided to quit and move back to Pakistan. This time, his parents told him not to come back so soon, because “what will the people say”. So now Amjad is stuck, unable to move forward, nor go back, simply whiling away his time until “better fortune comes my way”.

Nasir Ahmed was employed at a garments factory in Karachi when he learnt about an agent sending workers to Saudi Arabia for work that paid twice as much salary as he was receiving at home, in addition to accommodation and meals. Nasir jumped on the opportunity, selling his bike and borrowing some money before setting off for Saudi Arabia. In three weeks, his parents, wife and four children (all dependent on his earnings) had lost all contact with him. It turned out that Nasir had been arrested in a fake case of drug smuggling soon after his arrival in Saudi Arabia. Not knowing any Arabic, the poor migrant found himself unwittingly confessing to the crime, and was now caught in the ruthless justice procedures of the Gulf state.

Like Amjad Khan and Nasir Ahmed, many Pakistanis face unfair recruitment in other countries. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), from 1971-2019, over 11 million Pakistanis (mostly males) have moved abroad for work. Most of these travel to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates hosting the largest share of Pakistani migrant workers. After India, Pakistan is the second-largest South Asian country to send migrant labour to the GCC, the majority of which is low to semi-skilled. Every day, around 3,000 workers leave Pakistan in search of employment opportunities abroad.

In 2019, the number of Pakistanis going abroad for work were 625,203. Saudi Arabia was the largest destination, hosting 332,713 Pakistanis (53.2 per cent), followed by the United Arab Emirates with 211,216 (33.8 per cent). Oman is the third-largest destination country, where 28,391 Pakistani workers migrated for job opportunities.

Labour migration numbers were at their peak in 2015 and 2016 – with 946,571 and 839,353 staff, respectively. However, there was a major decline in labour migration flows during 2017 and 2018, with a reduction of up to forty per cent compared to previous years, due to lower oil prices.

Recent records of the Bureau of Emigration & Overseas Employment (BE&OE) 2019 show that 40,807 women workers went abroad for employment between 1971 and 2019. This figure includes all female emigrants registered with BE&OE and the Overseas Employment Corporation (OEC). Like their male counterparts, these women workers also go predominantly to the Middle East. Most of them find employment as housemaids, doctors, nurses, helpers, general staff and lecturers.

The Emigration Ordinance 1979 allows any person to go and work abroad “who is in possession of a letter of appointment or a work permit from a foreign employer or an employment visa or an emigration visa from a foreign government…”. The provisions in the act governing emigration of Pakistani workers to foreign countries hardly secure the interests of those workers. As a result, Pakistanis employed all over the world, in very large numbers, especially in semi-skilled and unskilled professions, find themselves caught in nightmarish conditions. In exile or at home, where are these people, with lives to live and families to feed, to find respite from the misfortunes they were born with?

*Names have been changed for privacy.