Rescuing the joblessArchive
PAKISTAN is in constant touch with the Saudi government to resolve issues being faced by retrenched Pakistani workers in the kingdom. It has mobilised its mission there to support distressed nationals, while the situation has served to alert the State Bank about the possible impact on remittances.
An insight into the profile of the Pakistani workforce in the Middle East — fast losing higher oil revenues — or a sense of urgency to understand and evolve a strategy to deal with the emerging situation in the long run, seems to be missing in official circles.
The readjustment in the Gulf economies to the oil price crash, political violence and future uncertainties, are beginning to impact the labour market and economy of the home countries of immigrant workers who make up as much as over 30pc of the population in some Gulf States. Pakistanis are among the top three immigrant nations.
Manzoor ul Haq, Pakistan Ambassador in Saudi Arabia, told Dawn on the phone from Riyadh that the mission was persistently pursuing the cases of the 8,520 Pakistani workers who have been laid off by two companies — Saad Trading and Contracting Company, Al-Khobar (520 workers) and Saudi Oger Limited (8,000 workers) — to help them claim several months’ unpaid salaries and withdrawn service benefits.
“We are in touch with the management of those companies and the relevant Saudi officials for an amicable resolution of the issue”, he told Dawn.
“We have distributed cash sustenance allowances and are providing food in labour camps where there is a need. The relief activities of the Pakistan Embassy cover all major cities of the kingdom where Pakistanis are concentrated including Riyadh, Dammam, Taif and Jeddah. We enjoy the full blessing and support of Islamabad”, he said.
Commenting on the evacuation of hapless workers currently huddled in labour camps without a visa, since that expired when they lost their job, he said the Saudi government had granted them permission to stay till the final settlement.
“We are ready to fly retrenched workers back home any day but they do not wish to come back home without settling their dues. They have been asked by the Saudi government to designate someone to receive dues on their behalf by giving power of attorney. We have volunteered our services in this regard but hardly 300 of the 8,520 workers showed willingness”, he elaborated.
According to him, there are in all about 2.6m Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia. He did not have any data mapping the profile of Pakistani immigrants but believed that more than 85pc are construction workers. The rest are associated with the service industry and a very few are associated with the oil industry.
“I know that some very well reputed doctors and bankers are Pakistanis but I am not sure about others”, he said.
Dr Nadeem Javed, chief economist, Planning Commission, who was in Saudi Arabia recently with the Planning Minister Ehsan Iqbal, agreed that there was a need to take stock of the situation in the broader context of readjustments in economies and the impact on resident Pakistanis.
“Yes it would help to evolve a more effective strategy in order to deal with the issue if we have factsheets detailing the profile and other related information about the workers. If such details are available I am not aware of it. No, in the planning commission there is no project currently looking into this issue”, he informed Dawn over the phone, discussing the problem that has the potential to become a crisis.
He said “For a country that lacks the capacity to absorb its indigenous human resource in the economic mainstream and requires a growth rate of over 8pc to deal with the unemployment issue, the return of migrants is bound to increase stress in the labour market.
“The return of experienced construction labour at a time when the country is at the cusp of a construction boom in the wake of CPEC- related projects may actually prove to be a blessing in disguise”. In this regard he mentioned the concept of ‘brain circulation’ referring to the gain of intellectual capital of the host nation for skilled labour.
He was more worried about the brain drain of experienced faculty from seats of learning in Pakistan and thought that would deprive the country of valuable educationists. “The five-year bond period of teachers who acquired doctorates under HEC sponsorship is expiring. Some have already left and many more are planning to move out as our pay and perk structures are not competitive”.
A senior official researcher who was not permitted to interact with media privately told Dawn that Pakistan’s dependence on a steady inflow of remittances, particularly from Saudi Arabia, the country’s single biggest source, can’t be over emphasised, specially at a time when the government had decided not to seek the IMF programme.
“Yes reserves are currently reasonably high but no one must forget that export earnings are not even half of import payment obligations. The country also has huge foreign debt obligations while repayment schedules are quite rigid. Pakistan can’t afford a major dent in remittance inflows expected to be over $21bn in the current fiscal.
“We are monitoring closely and not particularly worried, for migration from Pakistan to the Middle East is still quite high. Based on whatever little we know about the profile of people leaving the country to work abroad, my hunch is that the composition is shifting towards better skilled, higher earning people. In place of raw labour, IT professionals, engineers, nurses, beauticians, fashion designers, bankers, accountants and doctors are going there.”
“No I do not expect any dent in remittance inflow in the near term. The impression that the pace of remittance growth has slowed down is not correct. Yes inflows were exceptionally high in 2015 but it was because instead of the two, three Eids that fell in that year”, she explained.
The SBP said it was closely monitoring the situation but formal comments on the issue were not received till the deadline of this article.
Published in Dawn, Business & Finance weekly, August 8th, 2016