IN the year 2019, Pakistanis did what they have done in years past; they went abroad. According to statistics released by the Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment, over half a million Pakistanis went abroad to work in the past year. This number is actually a downturn from previous years, as the number of workers who went abroad in 2015 and 2016 was close to a million. The largest labour importer of workers from Pakistan was Saudi Arabia, followed by other Gulf nations. However, Pakistanis also set off for faraway destinations such as Sudan, which saw more than 500 people migrate there just last year.
Despite the lower trending numbers in the last few years, the number of emigrants generally trends upwards, making it quite clear that Pakistan is evolving into a permanently labour exporting society. Sending people abroad to work is not some temporary panacea to an economy that is unable to create jobs for seekers but rather a permanent niche that is likely not simply to continue to exist but probably to increase its share of the total labour market. It is a good thing, because as recent discussions have shown, the Pakistani economy in general and foreign exchange reserves in particular are heavily dependent on remittances from those earning abroad and sending money to families back home.
Speaking of families, now that the character of Pakistan as a labour exporting nation is unquestionable, it is necessary to take stock of how family demographics change when the main breadwinner lives and earns abroad.
According to the statistical reports produced by the Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment, all parts of the country are sending largely male breadwinners abroad. This means that the whole country is full of families who have women or other men serving as the head of their household.
The situation of emigrant workers and the families they leave behind continues to be a difficult one.
As a recent report in The New York Times revealed, the inevitable consequence of this is that it forces women to accomplish tasks that are otherwise left to men. In countries like Senegal and other parts of West Africa, which are also labour exporters, women have taken to doing everything from tending cattle to undertaking household repairs and other tasks because their men are far away. A large number of Senegalese men are migrants to Italy (those that survive the perilous journey) and are simply too far away to return home on a regular basis. The consequences are in fact spurring a transformative change in gender roles in even conservative parts of the country.
What is true for Senegal is also true for Pakistan. It is not simply migrant workers from the central district of Karachi (the largest labour exporting district in the country) who leave women-led households behind. It is also areas like Upper Dir; which sends a disproportionate number of unskilled labourers abroad who are also leaving behind homes where only the elderly, women and children live. It is undoubted that these changes are upending the family and tribal dynamics in this area.
Despite this, little support exists for such non-traditional families within the cultural discourse and the culture at large. Often such women are left at the mercy of remaining male relatives who are only too willing and ready to exploit the situation.
Pakistan has made inroads in developing an administrative framework in which to tabulate the numbers and supervise the employment of Pakistanis who seek work abroad. The Office of Emigration and Overseas Employment has developed a protectorate system where complainants can write to the protectorate appropriate for their district to seek redress. Currently, the agency licenses employment agents who must present the vacancies they are seeking to fill before being granted permission to do so. Then the agents can pursue recruits from different areas that are then taken abroad. The agencies that are looking to fill vacancies are all listed on the website.
All of this is good, but the situation of the Pakistani emigrant worker continues to be a difficult one. First Pakistan’s own lower negotiating power vis-à-vis the major employing countries — such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, etc — means that even pleas and protocols implemented by Pakistan and brought to the attention of foreign governments do not always receive the attention that they should.
Obviously, receiving governments (and employers) know this and tend to pay little attention to the grievances of workers — after all, if not from Pakistan, similar unskilled workers can be imported from Nepal, Bangladesh, India or any number of such places. Pakistani employment agents can stop hiring for the violating employer, but that cannot redress the issues of those already employed and sent back without pay and with expired visas and passports.
On a larger scale, Pakistan needs to raise issues regarding the mobility of workers on an international scale. These can function as a particular panacea for a world drunk on nationalism and intent on defining citizenship in increasingly more restrictive ways.
Pakistan could define citizenship in broader ways, enabling those in the diaspora to engage with and travel easily to the country that they love. Educational programmes, organised trips, humanitarian assistance are already taking place, but there is certainly room for more. With so many leaving their native soil and working abroad, the ideas of family, belonging, citizenship and celebration have already changed in Pakistan — it is now time to acknowledge that this is so.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, January 1st, 2020