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Adapting to the new normal: Covid-19 and Pakistani workers in the Gulf

Pakistani workers in the UAE [Twitter]
Pakistani workers in the UAE [Twitter]

Nobody can overstate the role that the migrant labour force undertakes in the Gulf. Jobs across the region in construction, transportation and sanitation are predominantly carried out by millions of mostly South Asian migrants. As a consequence of Covid-19, however, countless migrant workers have lost their jobs because of the unplanned closure of many businesses. Much of this labour force has been locked down in cramped, unhygienic conditions with no source of income and unable to return to their home countries due to international travel restrictions.

In Pakistan, manpower is of great significance, primarily because more than three-fifths of the population are young people. The dearth of employment opportunities combined with family responsibilities are the main drivers for young Pakistanis to seek work abroad. Official figures show that approximately 4.7 million Pakistanis were working in Gulf countries before the pandemic.

In April, the Pakistan government started to repatriate migrant workers. A Crisis Management Unit within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was formed for this purpose. In July, officials said that the repatriation process had been completed.

Covid-19, the resulting lockdown and the simultaneous fall in both the demand for and price of oil have resulted in economic downsizing all over the world. Experts have warned that in the aftermath of the first wave of the coronavirus, up to 90 million people will fall below the poverty line. In South Asian countries, this supposition is bolstered by the premature return of migrant workers and an end to others migrating to replace them. The future for such labourers does not look bright, particularly because a lot of host countries are implementing stringent migration policies. Air travel also remains limited.

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Before the pandemic, almost 60,000 Pakistanis were in the process of applying for jobs abroad, of whom 20,000 had cleared the formalities for entering Saudi Arabia. Covid-19 put an immediate stop to this. In light of the current recession, the International Monetary Fund has already estimated the unemployment rate projection for Pakistan to be 6.2 per cent for 2020. This is a worry as it is a fact that unemployment is connected to a country's crime rate, illiteracy and domestic violence.

Overseas remittances represent almost 86 per cent of Pakistan's secondary income balance. Of this figure, sixty per cent of earnings comes from workers in Gulf countries. Institutions such as the Asian Development Bank estimate that Pakistan will be amongst the worst affected countries in terms of remittance fallout. Government officials think that almost 11,000 households will be directly affected.

It has, however, been pointed out that remittance inflow exceeded the 2019 figures so much that it has helped the government to posit monthly current account surpluses so far, although this could be because official recorded remittances have improved even if the actual amount of foreign currency received has not increased. One reason for this could be the greater use of formal means of transferring money rather than the riskier informal routes. The State Bank of Pakistan's efforts to make digital payments less costly include the lowering of the minimum amount required to use the inexpensive bank transfer facility under the Pakistan Remittance Initiative to $200. Incentives have also been given to banks to provide better remittance services despite additional anti-money laundering measures introduced by the government.

Various government ministries in Pakistan have been cooperating closely for the repatriation and reintegration of migrant workers. The Overseas Employment Corporation has launched a portal which has registered around 70,000 jobless workers in order to guide the returnees in identifying opportunities both in Pakistan and abroad.

The Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment has been liaising with the National Vocational and Technical Training Commission to get worker skills attested and, if deemed necessary, developed with various technical and vocational institutions. This should enable upskilled workers to have a wider range of options in terms of employment opportunities.

Unemployed workers are also going to be provided technical and financial assistance and are being integrated in different welfare projects, including "Clean and Green Pakistan". Meanwhile, the Overseas Pakistani Foundation (OPF) is working to recover residual salaries from workers' foreign employers. The OPF chain of schools is also offering tuition fee waivers to children of expats, acquiring grants for setting up micro enterprises for repatriated workers and engaging in housing projects where 10,000 plots have been allotted to overseas-based Pakistanis.

The Pakistan government has also been in talks with officials from Gulf countries regarding the rehabilitation of unemployed Pakistanis.

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It is safe to say that until a vaccine is available, Covid-19 will be part of daily life. Hence, it is important to make the necessary adjustments.

For a start, officials in Pakistan need to be aware of the effect of Covid-19 on non-economic factors which will influence the demand for foreign workers in traditional host countries. Will, for example, chain migration be acceptable in the future?

Moreover, it is anticipated that there will be little to no economic opportunity for Pakistani returnees in the foreseeable future since almost all such workers are unskilled. They could, though, be placed in jobs in agriculture after first upgrading their skills in line with modern trends.

Finally, it is imperative for officials in Pakistan to study and identify potential niches in Gulf country projects. These include Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030, Kuwait's Vision 2035 and Qatar FIFA World Cup 2022. The government in Islamabad must then ensure that workers' skills are suited to these projects and thus keep them competitive in the jobs market.

In closing, it is important to point out that the asymmetry between home and host countries increases the vulnerability of migrant labourers. Poor living conditions in the Gulf were deemed to be a factor in the high rate of Covid-19 infections. Hence, the Pakistan government needs to coordinate with its Gulf counterparts to ensure that working and living conditions for workers are both safe and hygienic. Adapting to what is now the new normal is essential.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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