Twenty-two year old Leela made a promise to her family in Sri Lanka: she would earn enough money working abroad as a maid or a nanny to build a new house back home. Living thousands of miles from her husband and young son would be difficult, but Leela thought she would be able to send them money while she was gone. Her absence from Sri Lanka, in any case, would be short. She could not have been more wrong.
“Lebanon was built with Syrian muscles,” declared an elderly Lebanese in the early 1990s. He was referring to the hundreds of thousands of semi- and unskilled Syrians who have worked in Lebanon on a temporary basis in construction, agriculture, manufacturing and services since the mid-twentieth century.
Ray Bush, Economic Crisis and the Politics of Reform in Egypt (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999).
Nicholas S. Hopkins and Kirsten Westergaard, eds. Directions of Change in Rural Egypt (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1998).
Marsha Pripstein Posusney, Labor and the State in Egypt: Workers, Unions and Economic Restructuring (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).
In well-furbished offices overlooking downtown Nablus, Shahir Sa'd, General Secretary of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) sells his vision of the post-Oslo labor movement. "With the return of the Palestinian Authority (PA) we could concentrate on workers' issues, rather than struggling with national ones and we could merge the unions under one banner, and we have done that, consolidating 187 unions into 12."
“If we were to continuously work until 5 o’clock as hard as the employer wants, we would not be able to get to work the next day. No human being can work as much as that.”
— Domestic Worker
In what can be termed a modern-day slave trade, Sri Lankan women arrive in Lebanon only to find themselves abused, imprisoned, raped, hungry, defenseless and alone. Siriani P., 27, came to Beirut in a desperate attempt to save her family from a life of poverty. Just ten months later, however, she grabbed the first opportunity to run away from her employers.
For nearly half a century, the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — have been a destination point for international labor migration, annually attracting large numbers of workers from the Middle East and Asia. The GCC states are unique because of the skewed character of their demographic profile: Expatriate workers make up more than 50 percent of the total population in Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE,  and more than 25 percent of the populations of Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia.
Although the history of Middle Eastern labor migration to North America is not as well known as that of Irish and Southern European immigrants, Yemenis were working in Detroit by the 1920s and Palestinian and Lebanese diasporas existed around the globe before the end of the nineteenth century. North Africans were migrating to France by the thousands during World War I, and by the tens of thousands after World War II. Yet it was not until the 1970s, with the advent of the Middle East oil boom, that rates of inter-Arab and Asian-Gulf migration took off. The new requirements for labor as well as the vast differences in wealth between sending and receiving countries fueled the process. Male workers from Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia headed to Libya.
Ellis Jay Goldberg, ed., The Social History of Labor in the Middle East (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996).
The advent of structural adjustment programs since the 1980s has rekindled interest in workers and labor organizations, perhaps the greatest “losers” in recent reform processes. This edited volume includes chapters on Turkey, Egypt, Syria, the Maghreb, Israel and Iran. Its chronological range extends from the Ottoman era to the contemporary period.
After decades of delay, privatization in Egypt is now taking off.  Since 1993, 119 of 314 state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have been fully or partially sold.  These have been mainly manufacturing ventures, but the government has also pledged to offer utilities, public sector banks and insurance companies, maritime and telecommunications firms and leading tourist hotels. In May 1998, the International Monetary Fund, long skeptical of the Mubarak regime’s commitment to privatization, pronounced itself satisfied with the program’s progress. Measured in terms of annual privatization receipts as a percentage of GDP, their report noted that Egypt ranks fourth internationally, trailing only Hungary, Malaysia and the Czech Republic.
During the last 20 years, the Iranian economy has had to adjust to a revolution, an eight-year war with Iraq, economic isolation and the collapse of its oil revenues. As a result, Iran witnessed the complete undoing of its gains in per capita income from the boom years of the 1970s. The generation of Iranians who grew up before the revolution, at a time of steadily increasing incomes, view the last 20 years of decline and stagnation with disbelief. For the new generation, which came of age after the revolution, the pressing issue is not past losses but the current reality of stagnation and unemployment: One in four Iranian youths cannot find jobs.
This issue of Middle East Report presents critical — and timely — analysis of the impact of neoliberal economic policies in the Middle East and North Africa. Authors representing a variety of disciplines and viewpoints explore the dilemmas confronting progressive forces searching for alternative programs to restore growth and promote equity.
Less than a block from the seventeenth-century walls that surround Rabat’s medina (old city) is the Association Tamaynut. Inside the three-room office one can attend meetings, listen to lectures and participate in passionate discussions. A young man, Ibrahim, is there every weekday from morning until night. One of Morocco’s many thousand unemployed college graduates, he spends his free time doing volunteer work that he finds gratifying.
Victoria Bernal, Cultivating Workers: Peasants and Capitalism in a Sudanese Village (Columbia, 1991).
Jenny White, Money Makes Us Relatives: Women’s Labor in Urban Turkey (Texas, 1994).
After prolonged negotiations, the Egyptian government has drafted a law to diminish dramatically the state’s role in labor affairs. Expected to go before Parliament this spring, it gives both private employers and public-sector managers far greater leeway to hire and fire, and to set wages and benefits for future employees. In an explicit quid pro quo for the “right to fire,” the law also legalizes strikes, which have been banned since 1952. It signifies the government’s formal withdrawal from the Nasserist “moral economy,” in which Egyptians came to expect the state to guarantee job security and a living wage in exchange for their contribution to national production.
The story of the January 1995 strike in a private health clinic in Gaza City was published in only one paper, al-Watan, a new weekly affiliated with Hamas. Neither al-Quds nor al-Nahar, dailies in tune with the Palestinian Authority (PA), reported on the first workers’ strike under Palestinian self-rule.
Not so long ago, to visit the Erez checkpoint on Gaza’s “border” crossing with Israel was to witness a modem slave market. Tens of thousands of Palestinian workers would wake up at 3 am and gather at Erez for the privilege of working in their occupier’s economy, predominantly in construction and agriculture, undertaking the “dirty work” that Jewish workers would not do, for a wage on average a third less than their Jewish peers. At least 30 percent of Gaza’s GNP derived from wages earned in Israel.