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Thu 26 May 2011 01:10 PM

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Labouring for change

Attacking the Gulf for its treatment of foreign workers is one thing, but what about the US, asks Oscar Wendal

Labouring for change
Labouring for change

Returning from a two-week visit to the US, I was amused to follow the news on the spectacle of the Republican Party attempting to find a suitable presidential candidate for the 2012 elections. When characters like Sarah Palin and Donald Trump are to be found among the potential favorites to run, a certain doubt about the state and future of the world’s greatest democracy fills me.

Do the people really know what’s best for them? On the other hand, I have little clue as to who the candidate would be who can address the wide array of difficulties facing the US in 2011. There simply are no easy answers to matters such as unemployment, the war on drugs, illegal migrant workers and overall access to healthcare.

One of the more fractious problems in the US is that of illegal migrant workers arriving from Mexico. The scale and scope of this dilemma touches on all of the above-mentioned problems.

When you consider that the number of illegal migrant workers is estimated at anywhere between 11 to 20 million, with about six million in California alone, it gives a clear indication as to how important these labourers are for the economy. As is often stated, they take the jobs that Americans are unwilling to do.

The Economist recently ran a brilliant story with in-depth exposé on migrant farm workers in California. The account included a typical story of a family attempting to cross the border. They were caught three times after being hunted down “like deer” by the border patrol and deported, before they could make it into the promised land in the north” on their fourth attempt. It further recounts how a Mexican lady worked to pick strawberries, earning $65 a day and paying $50 a day to pay for a nanny to look after her child.

When seeing this situation in the US first-hand, and meeting numerous illegal immigrants working as drivers, cleaners and housemaids, it is surprising to hear how openly this situation can be seen in society. Many have jobs with reputable companies, hold social security numbers and have obtained driver’s licenses legally in many states.

Absurdly, in many cases no proof of residency is required. Yet they have little protection in terms of worker rights and access to healthcare, and live under the constant threat of deportation.

With this stark reality in mind, I am a little surprised when asked to defend the treatment of migrant workers in the Middle East. The US cannot be excused morally when it has large-scale abuse of millions of workers right under its nose, in the form of Mexicans staying in the country illegally.

Often it is only when you leave your home ground that you fully realise how well something functions. Instead of feeling I had to defend the GCC and its importation of migrant workers, I felt a stronger need to point out the problems in the US and speak out about how the US can learn to improve the situation of its migrant work force.

Clearly it is not an option for the economies of either the US or the GCC to function without the hardworking input of its migrant workforce. But what the US lacks is an ultimate grounding in reality to admit this fact.

There is probably no perfect balance in the inherent contradiction between the need for cheap labour and the interests of the working population. But doubtless anything is a better option than conveniently turning a blind eye to ensure the continued supply of Mexican workers, without giving them any legal right to complain, collect any benefits, or to receive healthcare.

The Gulf, despite its relatively small population, has offered millions of people from some of the poorest countries in the world the opportunity to make a living and to send money home.

Here the conditions, visa process, rights and pay is strictly regulated, with clear procedures. In addition, the migrant workforce has become largely integrated with the local population, adding to its characteristics of diversity and tolerance. This is an achievement unparalleled in any other nation today.

(Oscar Wendal is a columnist for Construction Week. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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David 9 years ago

I am not sure which GCC the author came to, but apart from the UAE, some other countries are still lagging behind greatly when it comes "to rights and pay maintained with clear procedures" .
It is really sad when authors misrepresent facts for whatever favor they wish to curry
The UAE has made lots of strides with WPS and other strict regulations but in some other countries workers have to pay bribes to have their passport released before travelling. Only an exit permit allows a worker to leave a country, and it is to obtain the exit permit that sometimes they have to pay bribes. That is slavery and nothing less. A worker is at the mercy before being allowed to leave the country even for an emergency leave.