Pakistani workers abroad: Can the country benefit from the post-pandemic job revival?
Rising global energy, food and metal prices have had an impact on consumption and poverty across the developed and developing world. A lesser discussed outcome has been a job revival in countries that are able to extract, process, and export oil, gas, and metals. This case has been most observed in oil-exporting Arab economies and has paved the way for an increasing number of nationals from developing and low-income countries to join the labour force in the GCC region.
The outflow of Pakistani nationals registered for work all across the globe has risen by 59 percent between 2021 and 2022. During the same year, Pakistani workers going to the UAE witnessed an increase of 189 percent followed by Saudi Arabia registering an increase of 77 percent. Currently, over 70 percent of Pakistani workers are giving services in the GCC region. This should provide a significant breather to Pakistan’s balance of payments which remains heavily reliant on workers’ remittances from abroad. During the ongoing fiscal year 2022-23 it is expected that the remittances could jump to USD 34 billion. According to the State Bank of Pakistan, the absorption of migrant workers abroad is getting normalized after a span of two years. The number of outward migrants had touched zero between April and August 2020.
Despite this encouraging news, many have argued that the recovery in migrant numbers is still fragile. Continued supply chain disruptions, the ongoing war in Ukraine, the heightened spat between China and the US, elevated inflation and higher interest rates are raising concerns that the leading economies are on the brink of a recession. These fears in turn could easily dampen the demand for energy sources and industrial raw materials. Such an outlook could put GCC economies on the conservative path, which could also result in slashing the projections of demand for the labour force. In such a scenario, there is little that migrant sending countries could do. However, learning from the past suggests a couple of pivots which could help build financial resilience in individuals who are abroad and at risk of global economic uncertainties.
To lessen the vulnerabilities faced by workers abroad, the federal government should aim to negotiate better contracts which protect the rights of Pakistani labour in the event of unanticipated economic downturns or pandemic-like events.
In times of an economic downturn, those with a lesser skill base are the first to get negatively impacted. Continuously augmenting and mixing varied skills and allowing individuals to access multiple occupation types in the longer term has been a key feature of technical and vocational education training (TVET) measures initiated at the National Vocational and Technical Training Commission (NAVTTC). Under Javed Hassan’s leadership, NAVTTC had tried to revisit the occupational skills standards and curriculum in a manner that could help the future labour force compete better.
As the number of worker outflows remains on the rise this year, the country hasn’t been able to increase its highly skilled segment of the outgoing workforce. We still remain a supplier of rudimentary services to most countries. National Skills University in Islamabad was tasked to bridge this gap, and help the workforce embrace the job transformation challenges associated with the fourth industrial revolution. Here again, under the leadership of Vice Chancellor Muhammed Mukhtar, graduates of this university are specializing through not only trainings in the university laboratories but also with collaborating industry partner institutions. Such initiatives require continuous patronage and sustainability.
A large number of workers are also migrating through government-to-government arrangements including those initiated by the Bureau of Emigration & Overseas Employment. Overtime, the requirement of foreign employers have been becoming stringent. A minimum set of technical certifications could be a starting point. However, to ultimately get the nod from employers also requires that Pakistani citizens currently working abroad should exhibit high quality service. Word-of-mouth travels far. This goodwill is important for future migrants aiming to serve abroad. For this purpose, targeted refresher programmes are required to upskill workers who have traveled abroad on this bureau’s arrangements. Now, with online and pre-recording facilities, this should not be a difficult task.
To lessen the vulnerabilities faced by workers abroad, the federal government should aim to negotiate better contracts which protect the rights of Pakistani labour in the event of unanticipated economic downturns or pandemic-like events. Moving abroad or even the reapplication process, requires high transaction costs which are often difficult for workers from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
The public sector can share some of these costs. For example, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), a recent review by UKaid’s Sub-National Governance (SNG) Programme found that workers intending to travel abroad could get a fast-track medical checkup facility at zero cost – an intervention proposed by the Internal Support Unit of KP’s Finance Department.
Finally, the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development will require improved capabilities which could ensure deep research into a fast changing global economy and evolving labour market trends. The ministry will have to work with other relevant institutions to enable Pakistan’s workforce export of skilled and highly skilled segments, at the same time ensuring that there are early alarms in case Pakistani workers’ interests abroad are threatened.
- Dr. Vaqar Ahmed is an economist and former civil servant. He tweets @vaqarahmed