Return of foreign workers

By Rafia Zakaria
Published in Dawn on April 29, 2020

IT is a time of getting stuck and staying stuck. Sealed borders and grounded planes mean that wherever you were in the beginning of March 2020 is where you still are.

For Westerners, the Great Pause (which is what I am calling our particular phenomenon of inhabiting our stuck moment in time) is an inconvenience and an annoyance; some New Yorkers lament being stuck in Los Angeles, some Parisians regret being stuck in New York. In sum, for those for whom travel was an embellishment in lives of affluence (precedents for which are difficult to find in history), the cessation of easily available flights that took them from one nice place to another is but a matter of a smaller set of choices.

Things are different for Pakistanis, many of whom work abroad and send remittances to the country they love but cannot live in. Thousands of unskilled Pakistani labourers are stuck in the Persian Gulf. In Dubai and Qatar, both host countries for our exported labour, repeated pleas have had to be made for their safety. Photographs published in various international news outlets reveal rooms cramped with meagre beds, and men used to physical toil and tribulation suddenly cooped up indefinitely. Unable to leave for home, they remain in limbo; the social distancing possible for richer people is impossible for them. The threat of the virus and the uncertainty of their economic futures loom over them, unforgiving and persistent. Will the large construction projects, oil pipelines, mega projects that employ them resume after the virus has gone? Will the virus ever be gone?

Pakistan’s skilled foreign workers have other problems. Working as doctors or engineers or accountants, they may have the ability to keep themselves isolated; all except the doctors can work from home, do all the things that have been prescribed to evade and elude the virus that has invaded our world. They may not be in immediate danger but their position is also precarious. With the world economy shrinking, the question of whether the markets in which they work will be able to keep them is also unknown.

The threat of the virus and the uncertainty of their economic futures loom over them.

In the short term, nearly all labour-accepting (rather than labour-exporting) countries have issued guidelines that say that visas that may have expired during the period of the lockdowns will not be penalised. The UAE has declared no fines and penalties for expired visas. Similarly, the US has also said that foreigners with H-1B speciality workers visa status will all be given a 60-day extension period without any penalties or immigration consequences. These small acts of respite have probably reassured many panicked men and women who face the continuous spectre of losing their jobs, not because they did not do them well, but because of visa issues.

These temporary grace-period provisions are great in the short term during lockdowns. In the long term, however, things are likely to be different, the extent of which was revealed last week, when President Trump tweeted that he would “temporarily suspend” all immigration to the US. When his executive order was finally drafted and signed, it only put a halt on green card processing for 60 days. While the order itself was ultimately limited, its text paints a picture of the world to come. Priority is to be given to Americans when it comes to jobs, and all efforts would be made so that new immigrants would not create competition for American workers in the job market.

The plan to seal borders to workers and immigrants is undoubtedly a part of the already existing white nationalist agenda that the Trump administration has long supported. At the same time, the unprecedented shrinkage of the world economy may likely provoke other politicians to do the same. Nationalism was already ascendant in many Western nations, and nationalists anywhere would only be happy to cut off migrant workers from entering their borders. The political necessity of being seen to ‘protect’ suffering native-born workers may drive even those who believed in globalism in the past to reverse positions and support programmes that severely limit the ability of foreign workers to enter and work in their economies and countries. It is long known that, in times of hardship, people help their own and exclude anyone they see as foreign, and the proliferation of exclusionary policies only increases when the threat of disease is mixed up with burdens of economic hardship.

These global events are going to have a specific and particular effect on Pakistan. In the coming months, there is likely to be a huge reduction in remittances sent back to the country from various countries. Second, the government should prepare for the possibility of a huge and sudden return of thousands of Pakistani workers as soon as the lockdown restrictions are removed. As a preventive measure, it may be a good idea to lobby governm­ents that receive labour from Pakistan and underscore commonalities so that they are aware of the devastating effect such a mass return of migrant workers would have on Pakistan’s economy.

Many commentators have pointed out other ‘pandemics’ that will follow the pandemic caused by the coronavirus. There may be a hunger pandemic as a result of millions of people being forced to forego the daily labour via which they feed themselves and their families. It appears that there may also be a labour pandemic, a sudden return of all the men and women we have sent abroad who must now return to a country that has no jobs and no plans for them. Like the Covid-19 pandemic, Pakistan’s government cannot prevent the labour pandemic, but in planning for its possibility it may be able to avert some of the hardship that would accompany thousands of those suddenly jobless making their way back home.

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