The dining area at the labour camp at the Saadiyat Island Construction Village, Abu Dhabi Image Credit: Abdul Rahman/Gulf News archives

Abu Dhabi: The principal focus of scholarly and popular writings on labour migration to the Gulf is the harms and abuse perceived to be associated with the phenomenon, not the benefits to workers or countries, an international conference on Labour Mobility heard yesterday (Wednesday).

“Migration is one of the largest ways that the GCC countries interact with the rest of the world. But there is extremely scarce research on any of these effects,” said Michael A. Clemens, fellow and research manager, Centre for Global Development and NYU Financial Access initiative.

Clemens argued although labour migration to the Gulf has very large, global effects, we know little about this. “The population of the GCC as a whole is approximately 41 per cent foreign-born, which is much higher than that seen in high-immigration OECD (organisation for economic cooperation and development) countries such as the United States and France (both 13 per cent), Canada (21 per cent) and Australia (27 per cent).”

Clemens added in all GCC countries, except Saudi Arabia,, foreign workers make up around 90 per cent or more of the entire private sector labour force, the large majority of them from developing countries – principally South Asia and the Philippines.

“International financial flows arising from Gulf migration are vast. In 2010 South Asia received about $83 billion (Dh304.78 billion) in remittances from migrants in all countries – compared with about $56 billion in Foreign Direct Investment and foreign aid combined (World 2012),” he said.

Yet researchers know very little about the effects of labour migration to the Gulf, with the foremost theme of research on Gulf migration the problematic and exploitative labour relations that seemingly characterise the experiences of many of the poorest transnational labour migrants who spend time in the Gulf states, Clemens said in a paper presented to the conference, jointly organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Labour and the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research.

Clemens cited two of numerous examples of academic research on foreign workers in the UAE, Keane and McGeehan (2008), which described “appalling” conditions in “a form of slavery”, while Zachariah et al (2003) found that “nearly one-fifth of the Indian migrants have not received the same job, wages and non-wage benefits as stipulated in their work contracts”.

Clemens estimated that of all internet pages in English that mention migrant workers in Dubai, almost one third contain the words “slave” or “slavery”.

Clement, however, tried to study the true effects of UAE work on 2,727 Indian households across 10 states of India.

The findings of his study, based on data gathered from Indian hiring records of a major UAE construction firm, a purpose-built survey conducted in nine states of India, and administrative records of the UAE Ministry of labour, were:

First, the economic benefit to migrant workers is extraordinarily and systematically large: migration to the UAE for basic construction work causes their daily wage to rise by a factor of five, and causes employment to rise by at least 20 percentage points.

Second, there is no sign that many of the commonly-mentioned costs of migration are systematically experienced by migrants’ households: migration to the Gulf causes the fraction of households in debt to sharply decline, and there is no evidence of labour force entry by school-age children or labour-force exit by adult family members.

Third, households are generally well-informed about working and living conditions in the UAE, and there is no evidence that they enter into migration systematically overestimating the benefits. Households with migrants give estimates of migrants’ income that closely reflect true income in the UAE administrative records; and households’ estimates of non-wage working and living conditions in the UAE change little whether or not that household has a migrant.

Clemens said the findings suggested that concerns about overindebtedness, regret, and unrealised aspirations should be regarded as anecdotal rather than systematic. “Indeed, they [these findings] raise questions about continuing to place top research priority on ‘problematic and exploitative labour relations’ and suggest instead exploring other aspects of the effects of Gulf labour migration,” Clemens said.