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Back | Project: Racism and Public Policy

Abstract of Paper by Ray Jureidini

  • Project from: 2000 to 2001

Migrant Workers, Racism and Xenophobia in the Middle East
This paper analyses trends in migration to oil-rich and other labour receiving countries in the Middle East. Patterns of migrant employment in the host countries serve as indicators of the extent to which a ‘racialization’ of particular occupational and industry sectors has developed. The paper examines causes, patterns and cases of discriminatory or xenophobic practices by employers, civil society and the state. Formal redress mechanisms and non-state assistance are assessed to determine the extent to which local problems that migrants face can be, and are, dealt with. Finally, policy suggestions are offered for improving relations between migrants and host communities, employers, recruitment agencies and governments.

The major influx of foreign workers into the Middle East began following the oil price boom in 1973, which resulted in an enormous boost of wealth for the Arab Gulf states (the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain, which compose the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC). The Gulf countries had grand development plans and the funds to pay for them, but were faced with a totally inadequate workforce; for example, the GCC countries had a combined workforce of only 1.36 million. Between 1975 and 1985, both skilled and unskilled workers from other Arab countries (principally Egyptians, Yemenis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Sudanese) and from Asia (mainly Pakistanis and Indians) almost doubled the populations of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Between 1980 and 1985 the share of Asians in the foreign workforce rose to around 3.2 million, from about 30 per cent to over 63 per cent. Over 2 million were in Saudi Arabia. By the early 1980s an increasing number of migrants were recruited from Southeast Asia (Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia), as well as the Republic of Korea. Until the end of the 1980s, these comprised over half the Asian migration to the Middle East. By 1990, workers from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had increased their share to over 20 per cent of the Asian workforce in the region.

In 1985, oil prices fell rapidly, prompting a cutback in infrastructure development in the Gulf states; migration from Asia dropped by almost one third. It has been argued that this decline would have been even more severe if employment growth in the service sector (from hotels to personal services) had not absorbed increasing numbers of workers, especially women from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines. At the same time, the number of expatriate migrants from other Arab states was being reduced, as often for political reasons as for economic ones. For example, the political activities of Yemenis, Egyptians and Palestinians were considered potentially threatening, but they were also more expensive. There were economic advantages of hiring Asians rather than Arabs. Asian workers were reliable, accepted lower wages and did not require the same social support services as did Arab workers, who were more likely to settle and bring their families.

Unlike those of the Arab sending countries, Asian governments pursued active policies for overseas employment, partly to alleviate unemployment and partly to generate foreign income. Their labour force had become a major export item, generating considerable earnings. According to ILO figures, for countries with serious trade deficits, remittances from migrants abroad can be significant. For example, Pakistani workers remitted over $2 billion in 1988, which covered 30 per cent of the cost of imports. Indian workers remitted $2.6 billion, the equivalent of 15 per cent of imports. Most of these funds came from the Middle East. On a somewhat smaller scale, remittances from the Middle East to Sri Lanka between 1980 and 1986 doubled, from $112 million to $264 million; by 1999 the figure had reached $1 billion (around 20 per cent of foreign goods imports for the previous year, and more than the trade deficit of $0.7 billion). Filipino migrants in 1997 remitted some $5 billion.

As increasing numbers of ‘cheap’ foreign workers from Asian and African countries fulfil the demand for unskilled workers, the kinds of jobs found in the secondary labour markets become racialized. That is, the dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs become associated with these workers, such that nationals in these countries will refuse to undertake them, despite high levels of poverty and unemployment.

This paper addresses the peculiarities of temporary foreign contract labour in Middle East receiving countries. It argues that temporary foreign workers are not formally ‘free’ in receiving countries, because they cannot access the local labour markets in the receiving country without express permission from the state. In other words, temporary employees are normally legally attached to a sponsor/employer until the completion of an employment contract, at which time the employee is required to obtain a renewal of their work permit or leave the country. Those who do leave (or ‘run away’) are rendered illegal and are subject to arrest and deportation. Periodic crackdowns are made to find and deport these illegal foreign residents. In most countries, many people in this category continue to live and work, although precise numbers are unknown.

Temporary foreign contract employees are typically the most favoured type of migrant to Middle Eastern countries, as there are no expectations of permanent settlement or citizenship rights. Most countries do not cover such employees under local labour law, and no UN or ILO conventions are in force and ratified which offer national or international protection, particularly for unskilled labourers. However, despite the temporary nature of such labour contracts, there remains a permanent pool of migrant workers in the receiving countries. Depending upon the numbers, ethnic community development ensues.

The paper focuses on racist dimensions of Asian domestic workers in the Middle East. A previous study of Asian female live-in domestic workers in Lebanon showed that conditions of slavery pertain to these employees, and suggested that structural arrangements, including threat of violence, restriction of movement and exploitative employment conditions, have led to widespread abuse of these women. Domestic employees are significant, because they comprise the bulk of foreign employment of workers from Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Similar conditions and treatment may be found in other Middle Eastern countries.

In the case of Lebanon, the presence of Syrian workers, particularly in agriculture and construction, is an added political dimension. These workers are largely undocumented, but continue to work freely because of the Syrian political and military presence in their home country. Further, Palestinian refugees who, since 1948, have been treated formally as foreigners, have been prevented from working in various occupations and professions. Discrimination against Palestinians has two justifications. First, granting citizenship rights and naturalization is seen as contrary to the legitimate demands of rights of return to Palestine; and second, the assimilation of Palestinians will mean a large influx of Sunni Muslims, which will undermine the so-called sensitive demographic ‘balance’ of the population.

The xenophobic dimension has three aspects. First, it is evident in the preference of temporary contract labour that excludes possibilities of citizenship. Second, preferential treatment is usually given to nationals, although particular kinds of menial work have now been ‘allocated’ to foreigners. Third, the attitude of disdain toward those who are visibly ‘different’ (particularly Asians) is observed in public places—in supermarkets, airports, government offices, etc.

While a number of suggestions are made in the paper with regard to formal redress mechanisms to alleviate or eliminate forms of racism and slavery in Middle Eastern countries, it is also noted that such reforms may affect the labour market in terms of the demand for foreign workers. If this is the case, governments of both receiving and sending countries may not be so supportive.