7th Asia-Pacific Seminar – Article on Migrant Workers in Pakistan

Today, I have the pleasure to be invited here and given the opportunity to address on behalf of Pakistan Brick Kiln Labour Union at this Regional Seminar.
In the 1970s and early 1980s the typical Indian construction migrant was from the village’s young, unmarried, mostly secondary schooling. Fifty per cent of them were unskilled. Undoubtedly this profile has changed over the years. The majority of construction workers leaving for the Middle East today will be expected to have held previous experience in the industry. Many of them are return migrants, some having been employed off and on for a considerable number of years with the same employer.
Our migration from Pakistan to the Middle East has followed a similar pattern to that from India. Peaking in 1981 and then falling to reach its lowest point in 1986. In 1986 and 1987 the demand for Pakistani Labour is reported to have been adversely affected by strong competition from migrant Labour from East Asia and other South Asian countries. Consequently there was a net inflow of return migrants, estimated at roughly 50,000 a year outflow accelerating dramatically after the Gulf War. The Government official data is believed to understate the numbers actually migrating by 15 to 20 per cent.
As with India, 99 per cent of all recorded migration from Pakistan is to the Middle East. The main impetus for the rapid expansion in out-migration in the early 1990s came from the sharp increase in demand from Saudi Arabia, where Pakistani workers came to replace Yemenis who had been expelled. Pakistani workers were also very actively involved in postwar reconstruction activities in Kuwait. Kuwait’s share in out-migration rose from only 1 per cent of the total in 1990 to 12 per cent in 1993. In these migrations, as in earlier years, construction workers formed a high percentage of the total. It shows that a high proportion of migrants during the whole period from 1977 to 1993 were in trades clearly identified with construction. The percentage of skilled construction workers never fell below 20 per cent and average 26 per cent over the period as a whole more than half a million skilled construction workers migrated to the Gulf. The un-skilled workers are not included in it, many of whom may be assumed to be working in construction.

The effect of the loss of skills on the construction industry received considerable attention in Pakistan in the early 1980s. The most immediate effect was a sizeable increase in wages in the domestic industry. A more serious effect of the out-migration of skilled construction Labour was felt on training, and hence on the quality of work. In Pakistan, as in most other countries, construction workers are mostly trained on the job through informal apprenticeship system. The training period is usually quite long and there are limitations on the number of workers a craftsman can train. A number of surveys in Islamabad and the surrounding areas around 1980 revealed that the migration of many of the better skilled workers had seriously reduced the trainer / trainee ratio and shortened the training period. This led to a steep drop in the output of skilled workers from the informal sector, and a significant reduction in both the quantity and quality of Labour available to the sector.
Informal training arrangement exists in both urban and rural areas of Pakistan. According to a survey it showed that migration was greatest from the poorest areas. Typical were in their 20s to 30s from a rural background with humble origins and minimal schooling. Many were illiterate. It has not been possible to verify whether this is relevant in 2009s, but data from Kuwait and Middle East indicate it might well be a total of 32 per cent of Pakistani production workers in Kuwait at the time of the Iraqi invasion in 1990 were found to be illiterate and the remaining 68 per cent had less than five years schooling. The average age was 37 years, and the average length of employment in Kuwait was nine years and seven months.
Dear Brothers & Sisters
While developing countries like India and Philippines make all- out efforts towards securing the rights of their nationals employed abroad, Pakistani migrant workers who contribute billions of rupees to the exchequer in foreign remittance every year literally live live slaves especially in the Gulf countries. These workers, many of whom live in very miserable conditions, have no forum to raise their voice as the Pakistani embassies concerned play no role in protecting their rights. Most Pakistani migrant workers are subjected to exploitation in those countries where the Government has allowed agents to operate and has, so far failed to evolve a system that can protect such workers from being abused and discriminated against in and outside the country. A majority of those employed in some Gulf countries worked as forced laborers living in Labour camps in very bad conditions. The workers are abused, forced to work for long hours and paid far less as compared to the Indians and Filipinos engaged for the same jobs. The regular and undocumented workers it’s a common practice that employers back out on their promise regarding salaries and benefits on the grounds that their contract agreement is not attested, workers could be sacked and deported immediately on any excuse and without calling any explanation.
These poor workers risk their lives, sell their belonging and work in poor conditions far away from their homeland so that their families can enjoy a better life. They are the ones who send foreign exchange and strengthen the country’s economy. Only last year, they contributed about $6 billion in remittances. But, what are they getting in return? The lack of interest on the part of the Government towards the plight of migrant workers could be gauged from the fact that embassies were not even accessible to most migrant workers.
The embassies are inaccessible for a majority of workers as they shut at 5pm. An aggrieved worker cannot afford to take a day off which would mean a cut in his wages. The Government should, at least, arrange for an evening desk at the embassies so that people can make queries and register their complaints at that time. The other side several developing countries, like India and Philippines, had bilateral agreements with the Labour receiving countries and their embassies played an active role in resolving the issues concerning the wellbeing of their citizens. The officials of these developing countries accord priority to meeting with their migrant workers during their visits abroad. The officials take keen interest in their issues and take up the migrant workers’ complaints wit the officials of the countries concerned.
All of you well aware that presently whole world is facing Financial Crisis, due to this financial crisis the construction work in Gulf States has been reduced and the construction workers are going back to their countries. According to a survey there were 57 per cent workers from the province Punjab, 21 per cent from the North West Frontier province, 10 per cent from Tribal Area and Northern Areas, 7 per cent from Sind Province and 3 per cent from Azad Kashmir. The majority of construction workers belong to province Punjab and 30 per cent of construction workers are illiterate and a total of 83 per cent have primary schooling or less. Due to un-employment in Gulf countries construction works the migrant workers are going back and they are putting their burden on a third world poor country which is already facing a very sever and drastic financial crisis already.
I am very thankful to all of you.
Thank you!
Pirzada Imtiaz Syed Secretary General Pakistan Brick Kiln Labour Union PBKLU