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Sat 1 Aug 2009 04:00 AM

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Migrant workers: Time to rethink

A United Nations-sponsored conference highlights key issues in the labour migration process including the absence of a minimum wage, too much dependence on remittances and the need to do away with the sponsorship system.

Migrant workers: Time to rethink
Kerala’s City of thiruvananthapuram was once famous for being the source of the majority of unskilled construction labourers.
Migrant workers: Time to rethink
The UN’s Vanessa Steinmayer and Unifem Jordan’s Mohamed Jinini.

A United Nations-sponsored conference highlights key issues in the labour migration process including the absence of a minimum wage, too much dependence on remittances and the need to do away with the sponsorship system.

A fortnight ago, Construction Week was invited to contribute, by way of a small presentation, about realities on the ground in the Gulf, to a UN-sponsored conference on the financial crisis in the Gulf, and its impact on South East Asian migrants.

The event was held in Kerala’s city of Thiruvananthapuram in India, also once famous for being the source of the majority of unskilled and semi-skilled construction labourers coming to the GCC.

Many other labour sending countries have since joined the human-resource race, including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

The main concern raised at the conference by the Kerala government was the drop in remittances coming into the country from these workers, and ways in which this could be revived.

For years, the world has looked on, often in dismay, at the plight of construction workers in the Middle East– especially during the boom years– and the refusal of their governments to extend the support that is expected of any government towards its citizens.

But now, as the economic crisis has tightened its grip on India’s remittance artery, desperate measures are being sought to keep these very workers from rightfully returning to their home country.

The meeting came after the World Bank reported that remittances to developing countries are expected to decline by 7.3% this year.

“Remittances provide a life-line for the poor in developing countries – an essential source of reserves, as well as a stabilising force for the economy in turbulent times,” said Irudaya Rajan, professor at the Centre for Development Studies in Kerala.

“With so many construction workers losing their jobs in the GCC, some say the figure is about 30,000, it has affected the rate of remittances coming into the country.”

Strangely, the impact of the crisis on guest workers in the GCC seems to have found importance in the eyes of the Indian government only now, when it is threatened with a decrease in remittances, which in turn, will affect its national GDP.

“The crisis has only exposed the heavy reliance of the Indian government on its migrant workforce,” said Boyko Atanasov, country programme director for Qatar, UAE and Yemen, Solidarity Centre – a US-based workers rights body.

“The sudden attention given to migrant workers, now that there’s a threat to the national GDP, amazes me. The Indian government didn’t do much to make their conditions better or insist on a minimum wage during the boom years, but now when it suits its own interest, it is trying to forge solutions to keep workers in their jobs, so that remittances don’t suffer.”The UAE, despite having no commitment to protect guest workers coming into the country, has aggressively pursued the betterment of worker conditions, while some governments including that of India, have passively introduced reactive measures to problems that could have been avoided.

But some issues at the conference only stood out more by virtue of them being absent. Could such dependence on remittances and migrant labour be good for a country’s overall long-term development? Does dependency on such factors, then compromise worker rights and devalue the workforce on the international market? Why has the Indian government steered clear of the topic of a minimum wage until now?

And who is responsible for protecting worker rights – the labour sending countries or the receiving ones?

“I really don’t think such dependence on migrant workers is the way forward, said Sudhir Shetty, COO-global operations, UAE Exchange – a money exchange agency based in the GCC state.

“In fact, I think it’s time for reverse migration. The country needs to start focusing on how to retain these workers and absorb them into areas, within the country, that need to be revived, like agriculture for example. We’re spending our human resources on developing other nations, when we could be using these very people to develop our own country and bring it closer to becoming self sufficient.

He said at some point the Middle East will become developed and this will lead to a decrease in demand for unskilled guest workers.

“Some GCC countries are also raising their profiles and have made it very clear that they’re looking for a certain class of people. And unskilled workers are not the typical profile they’re looking for in the future. It’s only a matter of time before this becomes reality,” he added.

But workers migrating for work is not a phenomenon that can be stopped and governments have to step in to control it better.

Vanessa Steinmayer in the social development division at the office of the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, feels that the crisis has exposed a need for better governance of migration and protection of migrants, and that governments need to step in now, more than ever, to protect the workforce due to their vulnerable position in the economic crisis. She also applauded Bahrain for its plan to do away with the sponsorship system that kicks in this month.

“Governments have to actively protect migrants from within their own countries,” she said.

“The age-old sponsorship system, or ‘kafala’ system, also needs to be ended as it creates opportunities for irregularities.”

On August 1, Bahrain will be the first GCC country to scrap the sponsorship system, possibly leading the way for other countries in the region.

It’s a step that is well intended, but just how far it will go in changing the mindset of the Middle East, is yet to be seen.

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