According to the Pakistanis working in and around Kabul, two factors – dollarisation of the Afghan economy and prevalence of English language – have opened the Afghan market to labour from Pakistan. — File Photo

KABUL: With the Americans and their subsidiary companies – construction, supplies, telecom etc. – now running the show, Afghanistan has emerged as another labour market for the Pakistanis.

Security in Afghanistan is precarious and even Kabul wears the look of a war zone. The Afghan officials waste no opportunity to show their dislike, even hatred, for anything Pakistani. Yet underneath the political tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the market appears to define and rule the relationship between Pakistani labour and their employers in Afghanistan. There are, according to unofficial estimates, over 70,000 Pakistanis working in different sectors – hotels, telecom and banking – and some are even running printing presses.

According to the Pakistanis working in and around Kabul, two factors – dollarisation of the Afghan economy and prevalence of English language – have opened the Afghan market to labour from Pakistan.

The Americans, one way or the other, are pumping over $100 billion into Afghanistan. “Even if three to four per cent of this money trickles down to a common man, it is more than enough to lift his economy,” says Haris Ali, country head of Aircom International in Afghanistan. Artificially pegged to dollar, the Afghani has improved to 45 Afghanis to a dollar; meaning that an Afghani is almost worth two Pakistani rupees. This exchange rate, though artificial as per economists’ claims, has become major attraction for the Pakistani labour, he concludes.

All major contracts, civil or military, go to the American companies, which, in turn, sub-let them to local or regional contractors. These contractors then need people who can write, speak and understand English and interact with American managers. That is where the Pakistanis as also the Afghan refugees who have been educated in Pakistan enter the picture.

“All the Afghans, who went to Iran during war, were put in secluded camps and Persian was their medium of instruction,” says a Pakistan diplomat in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, however, they lived in cities and were, by and large, integrated into the society and the education system.

This has turned out to be another advantage for Pakistanis. Even the mid-level Afghan managers feel much more comfortable with the Pakistani managerial staff and labour because of their own recent history and language affinity. Almost all of them also know Urdu language and can easily communicate with the Pakistani community. In fact, they became bridge between the American companies and the Afghan government, which hired local Afghans for all mid-level jobs and they in turn brought in the Pakistanis, the diplomat explains.

Afghanistan, even Kabul, is still not a family station. All the foreigners keep their families out because of security reasons. This situation also helps Pakistanis. “It takes only four hours to enter Pakistan by road from here,” says Shah Saleem – a hotel manager in Kabul, who hails from Hunza. Since it is a war zone salaries are higher. A worker gets salary either in dollars or Afghanis; both currencies are far better placed than the Pakistani rupee.

“I was employed at a Lahore hotel at a monthly salary of Rs17,000. Here, I am getting 35,000 Afghanis, which come to about 70,000 Pak rupees. All my boarding and lodging is covered,” Saleem said.

The hotel industry is booming because of a steady stream of foreigners who visit Afghanistan for different reasons. The NGO sector has become very vibrant for the last few years and their meetings – local, regional and international – generate a lot of business here.

The Pakistani labour gets one week off after three weeks of work, says Shahbaz Khan – who manages a printing press in one of busiest Kabul market. So, a man works for 21 days and earns more than double of what he gets in Pakistan after toiling for a month. The working hours are not long; by 7pm, everyone pulls the shutters down due to the Taliban scare and gets home before dark.

Labour from Pakistan is a win-win proposition both for the Afghan employers and Pakistani workers. Pakistan workers get more money and the Afghans get cheap labour as compared to others. A mid-level American costs much more than a Pakistani. Then, they have to be supplied special food and taken to India or Dubai if they fall ill. In case of Pakistanis, food and health cover is not a problem: they eat the same food and dash back to Pakistan in case of an illness. And before long they are back, having either been treated at their own expense and at lower costs even if the company is paying, Shahbaz Khan said.

The telecom sector has turned out to be the most vibrant sector in Afghanistan, covering even the actual war zone and all those areas that fall under the Taliban control. Pakistanis’ presence in the sector is most dominating and visible too. “Call rates are much higher as compared to Pakistan as the companies also include war zone charges and insurance for the equipment,” says Abdul Hayee, from Azad Kashmir, working in Afghanistan for a cellular company.

The companies do not suffer as much losses on their equipment as they charge from the consumers. Since the Taliban are also beneficiaries of the system, they hardly ever are indiscreet enough to damage the company towers, etc. All the income coming in shape of war charges is companies’ profit. The telecom sector is certainly making huge profits, and Pakistanis being expert in the sector are also beneficiaries.

All these factors put together have made the Afghan economy attractive for labour, and the Pakistanis, given the proximity and historical ties, seem to be capitalising on it. Since most of them have also learnt Pashto and can hardly be distinguished from other Afghans, it only works to their added advantage in a market, which is open and thriving, even if on borrowed money and time.

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