Passengers walk after  their arrival at the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi
Passengers walk after their arrival at the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi (File) Image Credit: AFP

Everybody needs a job; but some need it more than the others. This applies to the nations too — especially if your population bulge is as fat in the middle-to-the-lower-middle part of the demographic pyramid as Pakistan’s is. Almost 64% of Pakistan’s total population’s is below 30 years of age; 29% is in the 15-29 years category. That’s a lot of young people. This is a lot of job demand.

This explains why the present government was particularly keen to speak about the subject of employment when it started its tenure in 2018. To add lace and lavender to the lofty prospect a figure was set: 10 million jobs in five years but the statistics look grim. The country’s economy according to the latest report of the State Bank of Pakistan, registered negative growth in the present financial year and even by the most optimistic forecasts would not expand beyond 2.5% in the coming year.

More by Syed Talat Hussain

Interestingly, for the current year, the State Bank’s earlier report had projected a 3.3% growth. It now explains the negative trajectory on account of Covid-19 enforced economic lockdowns. At present the country is in the grip of the second Covid-19 wave. The government, which previously wasn’t sounding the alarm bells, is sending out incessant warnings of an imminent nationwide shutdown.

Yesterday it closed down its educational institutions till the next year. With the weather becoming colder and social distancing getting disrupted, the second wave can take an economic and human toll harder than the first. All projections about the economy therefore are just guesstimates.

That is bad news as far jobs are concerned. Over 2.6 million job losses are already reported in less than a year. Earlier an economic downturn unrelated to the pandemic had the economy reeling under stagflation and resultantly had cut deep into the job market squeezing many out of work.

How long is the short-term?

Job prospects elsewhere also look grim. The State Bank report worryingly speaks of overseas Pakistanis losing paid jobs on account of adjustments foreign governments are making to deal with the pathogen’s continuous havoc. Around 50,000 Pakistanis have lost jobs overseas, which, the report says, would not be recoverable in the short term. We do not know how long the short-term is likely to be. Another 50,000 have been sent back home because there is not enough work.

They use their savings on travel and are empty-pocketed upon arrival. Others are returning with all their earning intact but have no guarantee that they will either find work here or go back to work. Interestingly, while those returning with some remittances under the belt have given the country’s foreign exchange reserves an unprecedented boost — a 6.3 per cent growth as compared to the last year, the report notes with satisfaction — this temporary relief is fraught with dangerous dips ahead. They are not returning to their earning jobs anytime soon.

The report tellingly records some 490 special flights the government arranged to bring back over 90,000 Pakistani citizens from different countries. Not everyone who took these flights was an overseas worker; some were students or even tourists stranded abroad, but a vast majority did represent an expatriate workforce that had spent years building careers abroad or weaving a financial security net for their families that wasn’t available at home.

Recruitment projects paused

One video message from expat workers who travelled back from Greece on short holidays only to discover that they can’t go back under Athen’s new policy directive, makes a desperate appeal to the government to provide them some relief. There are thousands of others who are making similar SOS calls. It is difficult to see what the government can do for them. Its hands are tied. As it is, its plans to send fresh labour force abroad may come to a pause as most recruiting projects have been halted for the time being.

Also, the existing employment profile of Pakistan’s diaspora shows most of them are absorbed in the temporary category with skewed presence in regions across the globe. Of the 1.7 million people who left for jobs overseas in the last 3 years, 98 per cent went to the Middle East and only a fraction had residency benefits in other high-income countries.

For years successive governments have hailed the overseas community as its “most precious asset”. Their remittances have been crucial in making external sector estimates on budget books look respectable. Their donations have been welcome. They have filled stadiums abroad to cheer their national cricket team. As they face dire times, they now expect some reassuring gesture of support.

— Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. Twitter: @TalatHussain12