Roger Owen, Migrant Workers in the Gulf (London: Minority Rights Group, Report No. 68, 1985).
Today, as oil prices plunge, the six million foreign workers in the Gulf are feeling the crunch. Roger Owen’s new survey of Gulf migrant workers is especially welcome, for the future of Gulf societies in this new era is closely bound up with the question of these foreign workers.
Gulf migration is unique not because of the numbers (which are matched by recent migration into Europe) but because of the high proportion of migrants to local workers. As Owen shows, a staggering 70 percent of all workers in the Gulf are migrants. Hardly a single institution of Gulf society could operate without them: hospitals and schools, construction and industry, even the army and police forces.
Owen’s report is an extremely useful resource, providing a basic survey of the migrant communities—their numbers, age, gender, national origin and type of work. He reminds us that most facts are uncertain, as governments are secretive and migrants themselves keen to remain unobserved. Symptomatic of these uncertainties is the question of how many Yemenis have migrated to the Gulf countries. Owen chooses a conservative figure of 346,000 Yemenis, far less than Egyptians and Pakistanis who are known to number well over a million each. But the remittance figures Owen provides suggest the number might be twice as high and some observers think the figure could be a million or more. We will probably never know.
Owen reminds us that the migrants have been paid at extremely high rates by comparison with wages in their countries of origin: a Sri Lankan woman can work in the Gulf as a housemaid at 12 times the wage rate in Sri Lanka; an unskilled Egyptian construction worker can earn more than the highest paid civil servant at home. No wonder that this seemed an Eldorado to millions of workers, in spite of treacherous labor brokers, cruel employers, and miserable conditions. Its appeal is a measure of the desperation and the harsh conditions the workers face in their home countries.
Owen provides an excellent overview of the rise and development of migration to the Gulf region: the utter lack of responsible planning, the fear and loathing with which the migrants are viewed, and their relations to the parasitical Gulf state citizenry. The Gulf workers, ready to suffer many hardships and indignities for the dream of returning home wealthy, seem a prototypically “false-conscious” proletariat. Though worker passivity has been the norm, there might be more action in the future as Gulf austerity takes hold. For that reason in particular, Owen should have considered the record of workers’ efforts to organize and protest collectively, such as a strike of Pakistani bus drivers in Kuwait and an uprising of Korean workers at a construction site in Saudi Arabia. Though rare, these incidents are a powerful reminder that migrant workers in the Gulf are willing to insist on their humanity, even at great risk.