LAHORE: “…but I’d paid for and been assured of an automobile driver’s job,” Maqbool protested when the employer (kafeel) in Abu Dhabi the poor Pakistani chap had reached, told him that he would be driving a herd of sheep and not a vehicle.
“I couldn’t turn round and go home as the employer wouldn’t hand over my travel documents and sign my exit permit,” says Maqbool, who had sold out his mother’s jewellery and other assets to go abroad for materialising his dream of earning enough wealth that could wash away the poverty his family had been facing since generations.
Maqbool suffered both physically and financially for almost four years at the hands of his ‘master’ before he could return home much to the relief of his ailing mother and siblings. Living under almost ‘captive’ conditions in the vast desert where he had little communication channels for being unable to speak in and understand the local language (Arabic), he remained out of touch with his family during all this period.
Noor Elahi, a graduate in mechanical engineering from the UET, Lahore, has a similar story to tell. “For the first two months they paid me the salary agreed upon in the contract but, later, forced me to accept just 1,500 riyals,” he told Dawn.
He had been assured of 4,000 riyals a month salary in Saudi Arabia. Before the departure for the destination, he did not bother to notice that the work permit he had been given mentioned him as a craftsman much below the status his qualifications deserved.
“The employer was forcing me to accept even less than half of the contract amount as salary, telling me that the visa doesn’t mention me as a mechanical engineer so I have to be content with what was being offered as a technical man.”
Speaking to this reporter on phone, a girl revealed she had entered Pakistan from Bangladesh en route India enticed by human smugglers in her hometown with a promising future six years ago when she was 20. But her dream soon turned out to be a nightmare as she was “forced into prostitution”.
“I cannot count for how many times I’ve been sold out to wealthy men in Karachi and Hyderabad during this time,” she bemoans. Even if given a chance, she is reluctant to return to her homeland carrying the scars of physical and sexual torture she had gone through.
These are just a few of thousands of sad stories of South Asian migrant workers, employed under unfair and often squalid conditions.
Total stock of migrants in South Asia in just 2010 was 12.2 million with India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh on top, says Enrico Ponziani, an expert on labour migration, quoting a UN report.
He is here to attend the ongoing three-day South Asian Labour Conference which, among other things, is exploring possibilities of regional cooperation on labour migration with the technical support of the International Labour Organisation.
Most South Asians (34.2%) go to high-income but non-OECD countries, followed by 28.2% intra-regional migration i.e., between the countries sharing common borders like from Bangladesh and Nepal to India and Pakistan, and from Afghanistan to Pakistan and vice versa, he says.
Although government agencies lack proper statistics, there are around two million Bangladeshi and Burmese migrants only in Karachi living in its 82 neighbourhoods. Whereas, from 0.4 million to 1.0 million illegal besides 2.15 million registered Afghan refugees are also residing in Pakistan.
At least 60,000 Pakistanis, mostly from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, are at present working in Afghanistan, reveals an official of the Emigration and Overseas Employment Bureau. Though without proper papers, they are working in construction, IT and accounts sectors, he claims.
While labour migration generates substantial benefits for countries of origin and destination, it also creates a range of problems. Abuse of migrant workers during recruitment and employment is a common issue.
Pakistani diaspora, Enrico says, comprises around 7.0 million, mainly in the Middle East, the USA, Europe, with men constituting a major portion. Overseas Pakistanis send large amounts of remittances as in 2013, this figure was nearly $15 billion (ranked 10th in the world), but they face key challenges.
A large number of highly-skilled Pakistanis migrate to developed countries to seek better opportunities – citing not enough incentives locally. The migration is also irregular as people are unaware of the dangers of human trafficking and are often deceived by recruiters.
Sadia Hameed, programme officer of ILO’s South Asia Labour Migration Governance Project, says in the run-up to the 2020 Dubai Expo and 2022 FIFA World Cup conservative estimates expect up to one million more workers for the infrastructure projects. Therefore, it is high time a strategy was devised for protecting rights of South Asian workers.
Enrico recommends establishing migrant resource centres to disseminate accurate information on target labour markets and ensuring that migrant workers are made aware of their rights in destination countries.
The ILO project, Sadia says, aims to promote the management of labour migration from India, Nepal and Pakistan to selected countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It will provide reliable information on overseas employment opportunities and building the capacity to match qualified job-seekers with foreign employers, reducing migration costs and abuses and increasing the protection of migrant workers in countries of origin and destination by improving recruitment services.
Enhancing training and portability of skills for outgoing and returning migrant workers and promoting the development impact of migration are other targets of the project, she adds.