Pakistani Labour Migration to the Middle East

By Yusufzai, Haider | Economic Review, April 1997 | Go to article overview
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Pakistani Labour Migration to the Middle East


Yusufzai, Haider, Economic Review


During the 1970s and 1980s the large-scale migration of skilled labour from Pakistan to the Middle East markedly altered the character of development in Pakistan and contributed to dramatic and fundamental changes in the country's economy and society. Nearly two million Pakistanis, representing at least ten per cent of households and more than seven per cent of its labour force worked in the Middle East. In 1983, remittances from these workers amounted to $3 billion exceeding the country's foreign aid receipts and nearing the amount earned by Pakistan's exports. The most immediate impact of these remittances was the increase in consumer goods and real estate purchases. Less visibly, though equally dramatically, the domestic employment situation and the balance-of-payments position was also affected as a consequence of the outflow and inflow of workers remittances.

The aim of this study is to analyze why migration to the Middle East occurred and to assess the impact it had on Pakistan's economy. It should be noted that the labour's large-scale migration was intimately linked to conditions both in Pakistan and the prospects is the Middle East. Faced with economic stagnation and the climate of political uncertainty at the beginning of the 1970s, the Pakistani labour was eager to grasp the new set of economic incentives presented by the rapidly expanding economies of the Middle East countries. Pre-existing ties between the two regions, established on the basis of religion, historical associations and geographic proximity were additional factors which helped facilitate the acceptability of Pakistani labour.

Between 1975-1979 was the period of the most rapid growth in the size of the labour force in the Middle East, which encompassed the last two years of Z.A. Bhutto's rule and the first two years of the military regime of General Zia. The latter's regime continued to extend official support to the migration of Pakistani workers to the Middle East. Government in Pakistan have generally viewed the migration process as a positive factor and have taken steps to promote it. Efforts have been made to increase the migration follows by facilitating recruitment and by training workers in skills which are in the greatest demand in the Middle East. Successive governments have introduced policies, that are directed towards increasing the value of remittances returned to Pakistan, in the form of increased availability of merchandise or capital goods; a reduction in import duties for some items, and relaxation in the earlier rules regarding personal baggage, as well as gift schemes. A "Non-Reportable" Investment Scheme" was introduced, encouraging the import of capital goods by expatriates. This scheme provide a number of incentives, such as customs exemptions, tax credits, rebates, liberal depreciation allowances and so forth. However, the scheme has one major disincentives that the investment remains non-repatriable in times of domestic uncertainty.

One of the most important aspects of labour migration from Pakistan to the Middle East is that it encompassed a vast range of skills and experience backgrounds ranging from the least trained to the most professionally qualified and from various segments of society, covering a variety of occupations, such as street cleaners, financial managers, drivers, medical doctors, shopkeepers, university professors, sanitation workers, manual workers, skilled craftsmen and unskilled labourers. It is this mixture of occupations from the highly professional to the skilled craftsmen which distinguishes the labour migration to the Middle East from the 'brain drain' of largely the skilled professionals to the United States and Europe, during the 1960s and 1970s.

Most labour migrants to the Middle East are males, but there are some females also serving as domestic servants or nurses. 75 per cent of the migrant workers are under the age of 30 and about 70 per cent are married. Large numbers of rural workers come from the provinces of Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and North-West Frontier.

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