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Love through letters, cash and cassettes

Published Jul 21, 2012 08:04am


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When a 35-year-old in Philippines gets accepted for a job in the Middle East, It is always good news, except if she has a child.

Most employment contracts for positions like nurses, domestic workers, cleaners and laborers offer a rewarding package when compared to the salaries back home but this comes with a hefty price tag; the workers often have to leave their families behind. One 1984 survey conducted in Sri Lanka found that over three-quarters of the females departing for foreign employment were married. From an average family size of 5.7 persons, 90 per cent of the women left children behind, many of them under five years old.

Always good news, except when it’s not:

An influx of foreign workers in the Middle East since the discovery of oil has been on the rise and the overwhelming majority of these workers come from developing countries. When hiring for roles like nursing, housekeeping, even secretarial staff, companies prefer female workers. For most of these positions, however, there is no family visa, which means that the children if any are often left with grandparents or relatives while the mothers travel abroad for work.

Work related migration is seen as a way to alleviate the family poverty and often to guarantee a better future for the children. Although, these earnings do enhance the economic and social status of the families, the psychosocial costs are huge and could violate child’s right to development, survival and education. As Amy Waldman in her NYT article describes:

“The exodus has reconfigured family life. Women dispense maternal love through letters, cash and cassettes sent home. Divorce, children leaving school, husbands turning to alcohol, and child sexual abuse has become routine by-products of the women’s absence. There are less tangible tolls as well. "That time will never come back," Roshan Prageeth Kumarasinghe, an 18-year-old neighbor of Lalitha's, said, choking back tears, of his mother's decade-long absence.”

The children left behind

According to the study titled LEFT BEHIND, LEFT OUT: The Impact on Children and Families of  Mothers Migrating for Work Abroad, nearly half of the children were less than six years of age at the time of the mother’s departure and almost 33 per cent were less than three years  of age. Child psychologists agree that the first five years of a child's life form the foundation that determines future health, happiness, growth, development and learning achievement at school, in the family and community, and in life in general. The long term absence of a mother in these formative years can have disastrous effects on the child’s wellbeing.

Some companies in Middle East especially in the healthcare and hospitality industry do not allow their workers to get pregnant during the tenure of the contract. This leads to women often going for botched abortions for fear of losing their job. Even women who are not contractually bound but are on a singles’ visa often terminate their pregnancies because they cannot afford to raise a child without health insurance, child care and education allowance, which they are not entitled to unless they have a family visa.

What can be done?

Part of the dilemma about working as a lower rank foreign worker in the region is that you can never assume an equal footing when it comes to contractual obligations. There are a lot of reforms needed at the policy level to address the issue of visas and family status for these positions but like all things government, that may take years.

Companies in the region are beginning to realise the long term effects of such visa restrictions and have started taking remedial steps. A few companies have started the practice of recruiting both husband and wife. It is a practical solution for bigger companies and by offering employment to both parents, they not only ensure that the family remains intact but also save money by increased productivity and lower turnover rate. Onsite crèches and childcare allowance for all married employees regardless of visa status is also a practice gaining traction.

One practical solution that every company who hires foreign labour can implement is to guarantee yearly time-off and air ticket to the home country. Although, this is part of the standardised contract for all foreign workers, only a few actually get to enjoy this month-long, paid trip back home. By ensuring that the parents spend at the very least one full month with their children will mean that the parent is involved in the upbringing of the child and the child does not grow up in complete isolation.

While migration is seen by workers as a way to give their children a shot at a better life, the immigration rules and company policies can make it hard on the children. The demand for foreign workers in the region is only going to go up in the coming years and host governments and businesses need to take steps that ensure not just prosperous but also a joyful future for the children of these workers.


Bushra Azhar is a CSR and Sustainability Consultant based in the Middle East. She is the founder of Good Business Sense. You can contact her through her email


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (23) Closed

miramshah Jul 21, 2012 06:53pm
Is US immigration any different when it comes to contractual obligations and performing visa waivers for extended number of years without the possibility of seeing one's family?
p kumar Jul 22, 2012 10:08am
here is why arabs lost the crusade;they failed to win the affections of the rest of asia
Tahera Jul 21, 2012 03:31pm
A very matter of fact article about the discriminatory, contemptuous treatment of migrant workers in the Middle East!. With the exception of the fact that they get paid a salary, these contracts have all the characteristics of enslavement and in my opinion are a breach of basic human rights!
Zero Jul 21, 2012 04:51pm
An important topic to bring to the fore. Migrant men workers (low-level) in the ME don't fare any better: mental illnesses, alcoholism, adult entertainment addiction, adultery, crime, divorce, etc. I personally know several cases of heart and family breaks that these 'non-physiological' situations have incurred. The solution is that a family must live like a family is supposed to live and the governments of hiring countries must mandate that the employers who benefit from cheap foreign labor, make this possible.
G Krishnan Jul 21, 2012 05:08pm
You have addressed a social problem that few have had the guts to tread on before, in print ! As far as India is concerned, and Kerala particularly ( what the Pakistanis term as Malabaris, in the Gulf ) it's the preponderance of the menfolk who have sweated it out in the Gulf, for close to a century, leaving behind their families. For the four years that I worked in the Gulf, and also close to one year in Kerala too, I have experienced first-hand how distraught families can get. Not to speak of the many from KP and other parts of Pakistan, and Bangladesh and Sri Lanka too, with whom I worked shoulder-to-shoulder, whose sacrifice for their kith and kin is equally unparalleled. But I can't agree with your concluding lines. The overall economy in the sub-continent is looking up, and any necessity to leave the near and dear ones is fast diminishing, for any material rewards that accrue therefrom are proving less attractive now, than till hitherto.
BRR Jul 21, 2012 06:31pm
To get out of poverty, women work in stressful conditions away from their families and make great sacrifices. So do men, but women face greater challenges, not the least of which is being away from their young children. hat globalization for you, at least as it is practiced in the middle-east. The much maligned / hated US and the West at least encourage entire families to move. Not the beloved middle-east.
Cyrus Howell Jul 21, 2012 04:18pm
Life is about the decisions we all make. Mexico, the Philippines and Vietnam are the fastest growing populations on earth
Kamran Rashid Jul 22, 2012 10:23am
Part of process could be to educate government over the benefits of bringing family with an example of migration policy in Europe and USA. I know Arabs are difficult to understand but a gradual pressure could lead a major breakthrough over couple of years.
Vin Jul 22, 2012 02:26pm
I think women working in hospitals are better off, worst affected are house maids. Many of them are not paid their salaries and kept in the house as slaves. Being uneducated they do not know how to escape and are helpless.
Aamna Qureshi Jul 21, 2012 01:30pm
well written! but to change saudi employer's mind setup which is needed to change their policies, is a question of thought indeed;)
Adil Jadoon Jul 21, 2012 08:04pm
All the countries whose nationals working the middle east need to get together and demand better conditions. About time they stopped growing off the misery of others.
latif Jul 22, 2012 01:44pm
all in the name of ummah.
Dr Siddiqui Jul 21, 2012 09:12pm
Strange suggestion of a month's time for child care knowing the pressures on a low wage earner who needs at least three years to pay back loans and than save money!
Jamal Najmi Jul 21, 2012 10:58pm
Last time I checked middle eastern countries are Muslim majority where mosques are in every nook and corner. My point is that religion alone does not bring justice in society, even Islam cannot. These middle eastern rulers are full of greed. Societies will have to evolve and embrace ideas of love, respect, justice, and equality evolved due to human experience and not bestowed from the heavens above.
Shakil Jul 22, 2012 04:04am
harsh truth, rich people and rich countries will have to understand that distribution of wealth is the only way forward.
Dr.Farooq Ahmad. Jul 22, 2012 06:56am
Very well written about problems of poor workers......
Usman Durrani Jul 22, 2012 07:00am
This is the truth and many people facing this problem because most of the employees come from Asia for searching job in UAE. Therfore govement should make stretegy to resolve this old issue .we can see Universities producing thousands of graduate every year but not all of them get jobs few of them find opportunity other people starting business,some move to abroad and some are at home doing nothing This is the real fact all blame gose to establishment ,Govt.because they are fail to make workful stretegy to overcome this old problem.and basic rootcause is is impossible to vanish but we can eliminate corruption and it is not difficult but all it need is pure intention.
Asim Jul 22, 2012 07:14am
A very good highlight indeed. The practice of having cheap women employees and not letting them be with their children involves corporate greed. It will not change just through awareness in the Middle East but it needs formulation and implementation of some international labour laws. Laws that prevent companies from breaking families (by not issuing family visas). Note that many companies can afford to bring families with the employees at the cost of cutting down their profits. But they dont bother because nobody is forcing them to, and because there are too many other employees available that are ready to work at cheaper rates and worse conditions.
Bakhtawer Bilal Jul 22, 2012 07:21am
The colonial masters left the colonies as it is more of business sense to keep them subjugated economically rather than by the physical presence. On the same note, the workers are slaves but in the modern day. It is cheaper to have these workers than to buy real slaves and then take care of them. They can discard them any time. But why blame the host country, blame goes to home country from where the mothers leave, due to poverty.
Pakistani Jul 22, 2012 08:48am
I am a Pakistani living in Saudia, but I found Saudies to be very helpful, I dont know why people speak badly against the Arabs, if we Pakistanies, Bangladeshi, Indians are in the same position definately we would take advantage or we can be worst.
Muhammad Jul 23, 2012 12:12am
women get inhuman treatment one way or the other. This exploitation has continued since the time immemorial. Plight of far eastern women employed in the Middle East and elsewhere is deplorable. Much more needs to be done to improve the situation.
usman Jul 23, 2012 06:24am
i differ with you, How come we blame the religion ( what ever it may be) but the followers, Bcuz, we failed to follow the preaching of our religion(s)
Ayesha Mahmud Jul 23, 2012 10:53pm
This is an amazing article, very well written indeed highlighting an important topic. Great work and please do keep sharing your thoughts on such thought provoking subjects.