by Felix Mwenge, Tamara Billima & Miselo Bwalya
The Government’s recent announcement to facilitate the recruitment of 1,000 Zambians to work in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait has been received with mixed feelings.
The jobs, which are targeting maids, drivers, waiters and waitresses, appear relatively lucrative as workers are expected to receive up to K13,000 a month, 14 times the stipulated minimum wage for maids in Zambia.
However, the general public has expressed concerns based on international reports of the abuses that workers in the Gulf suffer. Some members of the public have also expressed concerns about the low skill requirement of the jobs on offer while others think that the Government should focus on creating employment at home instead of sending young Zambians abroad. Nonetheless, the Minister of Finance maintains that the Gulf presents an opportunity for the Government to create employment for Zambians who can go and make an honest living.
Strange as it may seem, the announcement by the Minister of Finance represents one of the responses of many developing countries to the problem of rising unemployment. As the work force grows at rates faster than employment, migration is a common option especially for young people. Today, there are about 150 million migrants working in countries across the globe far from their homes. Worker migration is therefore not a new phenomenon.
Working abroad tends to be beneficial financially and is among the reasons individuals decide to migrate. Often, the wages of migrants tend to be significantly higher abroad than in their home countries. This leads to considerable welfare improvements for their families through remittances. Globally, migrant remittances have generally helped to improve the standards of living of their families at home. Some of the benefits also accrue to the rest of the economy. Assuming a strong culture of support by migrants towards their families at home, remittances are important financial capital flows that tend to be relatively stable and less volatile.
Another important issue concerning migrant workers is the level of their skills and qualifications. Migration can result in the absorption of skills, knowledge and technology that could be transferred back to migrants’ home countries when they return there. This can have considerable positive impacts on productivity and economic growth. However, this is relatively more feasible if migrant workers are skilled and well qualified and return home while still in their productive years.
The benefits of labour migration notwithstanding, the 1,000 jobs advertised in the Gulf region are peculiar because of the internationally reported abuse of migrant workers in that region. The Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the BBC have separately pointed out various abuses that migrant workers in that region are subjected to. Some of the abuses include unpaid wages, confinement to houses, and abnormal working hours reported to be as long as 21 hours in some cases. Some workers have also complained about physical or sexual assault by employers.
According to the Human Rights Watch, the Gulf region also employs a system known as the ‘kafala’ system which ties migrant workers to their employers indefinitely. This system implies that migrant workers cannot leave their employers without facing punishment for “absconding,” including fines, prison, and deportation. Furthermore, unlike in other parts of the World, the UAE’s labour law excludes domestic workers. This means workers in this category face legal and practical obstacles to labour related conflict resolution. Countries in Asia such as Indonesia, the Philippines, India, and Sri Lanka have in some cases banned recruitment of their citizens to the Gulf entirely owing to these concerns.
A survey of Tanzanian migrants conducted in 2017 also revealed further concerns about working in the Gulf region. Most women described humiliating treatment, including physical and sexual abuse from male members of the household with some women being raped in some cases.
Based on the above, it is clear that there are some cases of abuse in the Gulf region. Although allowing people to go there may partly address high unemployment in Zambia and result in additional benefits at the micro and macro levels as outlined, the costs are likely to far outweigh the perceived benefits, particularly from a human rights and human dignity perspective. It would therefore not be in the best interest of Zambian citizens who may be sent there.
In conclusion, there is no problem with Zambians working abroad. However, the Government should ensure that Zambian citizens go to areas that respect labour laws and promote decent work and workers’ rights; from the existing evidence, the Gulf region does this selectively. It is also important to strengthen the implementation of existing strategies to create decent jobs as a country even as we consider opportunities outside the country. Equally, the economy will derive relatively more economic benefits if the Government fosters more migration of skilled and qualified workers than of low skilled ones. Thus, in addition to implementing job creation strategies, the Government should also accelerate skills development for Zambia to have a large pool of skilled Zambians who can compete for jobs globally.