Acknowledging the role played by Pakistan’s overseas workers
It is a well-known fact that Pakistan is steeped in debt. In the past several months, even as elections have been held and a new administration has been elected, the grim shadow of being in debt continues to loom over the country. The rupee recently plummeted to its lowest value against the dollar, even as the country’s dwindling foreign exchange reserves highlighted their own set of problems. So terrible have things been, that several allies have been approached with the hope that they may extricate Pakistan from its current crisis.
In the past week, however, one announcement has provided some respite amid what has been a uniformly sorrow-filled situation. According to several media reports, remittances sent back by Pakistan’s foreign workers have jumped nearly 12.5 percent amounting to approximately $9 billion. This impressive figure has been tabulated based on data made available for the first five months of this fiscal year, suggesting that if the trend continues, there may be a continuing rise in remittances in the last half of the year as well. The highest amount of remittances – more than $2 billion -- came from Saudi Arabia, with UAE coming in second and the United States in the third place. Pakistani workers in the UK sent home nearly $1.25 billion with Malaysia being the new entrant on the block by remitting nearly half a billion dollars.
All of this is undoubtedly good news even if some of it is not unexpected. Pakistan has always been a labor exporting country -- whether it is low-skilled labor for the construction sector, maintenance facilities or other similar jobs or highly-skilled labor such as doctors and engineers.
Pakistan has led the way in providing workers to the rest of the world. The growing numbers reflect two factors; first, the illegal money transfers using the “havala” and “hundi” channels have significantly decreased thereby allowing money to flow in through regular channels and be correctly enumerated. Secondly, the slump experiences by several overseas workers in the past few years -- with Gulf states and others reconfiguring their economies -- has ended. The emergence of Malaysia as an importer of Pakistani labor is a development which reflects on the fact that when employment opportunities in one part of the world such as the Middle East slow down, new destinations are emerging for Pakistani workers.
An initial investment in a worker – by providing for their transportation costs to the destination of employment or similar benefits -- would mean that families of low-skilled workers would face fewer obstacles in the visa and travel process.
One way for a country to lift itself out of poverty and debt is to invest in areas that are lucrative. As can be seen from the number of remittances sent back by Pakistani workers, the export of skilled and unskilled labor is an area that could see even better results with the government’s support and investments. Training and support of low-skilled workers would mean that they would be even less likely to use illegal means to transfer money and would find the transition to jobs abroad less arduous. An initial investment in a worker – by providing for their transportation costs to the destination of employment or similar benefits -- would mean that families of low-skilled workers would face fewer obstacles in the visa and travel process.
Similarly, high-skilled workers such as doctors, engineers, and tech workers could benefit from better consular services in the countries they are employed in. Extending scholarships to talented students would act as an incentive and make it easier to obtain degrees. Training the students for interviews and apprising them about the laws and regulations of major labor importing countries could also result in a more confident and equipped overseas Pakistani worker. To sum it up, investing in our people would mean higher dividends and an even higher number of remittances which could provide a great boost to the economy in the long run.
The government recognizes this. In the past several months, after the new administration took charge, there has been an attempt to provide better services. Traveling with Pakistani passports has been made easier for returning workers and their families. Earlier this month, the Punjab province announced plans to form a Standing Committee which was devoted to the resolution of issues faced by overseas Pakistanis. These issues included illegal confiscation of various properties owned by overseas Pakistanis. Both of these efforts and many others taking place around the country represent a significant progress in the government’s attitude toward overseas Pakistanis.
Cited above are just some of the examples of the work being done at the state level. However, investing in overseas workers (and hence in the remittances that they send) cannot be the sole responsibility of state institutions alone. As things stand, there is a misconception that overseas Pakistanis are not as patriotic as Pakistanis who choose to live in the country. This is a tremendous problem for a country that is so dependent on the remittances of foreign workers. Public discourse in television dramas and discussions often paints overseas Pakistanis as traitors who have chosen to leave their country and settle in more lucrative lands.
This is a myth and one that can cost Pakistan a great deal in terms of collected remittances. Most overseas Pakistanis go abroad because they cannot find stable and meaningful employment opportunities at home. As the number of remittances shows, the fact that they may not be physically in the country does not mean that they do not invest in their native country or feel a sense of responsibility toward it.
Pakistan’s culture and the mindset of Pakistanis, in general, must be altered towards overseas workers. Those who work abroad and endure the pain of separation and exile must not be seen as lesser Pakistanis but rather as individuals who are playing a tremendous role in saving Pakistan at a time of deep debt and economic need.
– Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury 2017). She writes regularly for The Guardian, Boston Review, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, and many other publications.