A recent Gallup poll revealed that Saudi Arabia, ahead of the UAE and trailing behind the U.S., is the second most-preferred destination for migrant workers. The poll’s results are unsurprising despite the nation’s reputation for exploitation and its lack of effective labor or domestic worker legislation; the high demand for workers and the comparatively higher wages are enticing for many migrants, who often rely on remittances to support family at home.
However, the desire to work abroad does not ameliorate the conditions faced by foreign workers. Though migrants technically choose the nation of their employment, they do not choose the precarious working and substandard living conditions they typically face. In fact, migrants often have little say in the content of their employment contracts because of misrepresentation by both recruitment agencies and employers. Furthermore, once migrants become enveloped in the kafala (sponsorship) system, they are coerced into additional unfair arrangements, including lower-than-contracted wages, dangerously long working hours, negligible health care, and other by-products of the minimally regulated foreign employment structure.
The lure of Gulf economies in itself perpetuates exploitative conditions; because these states realize that that their demand can always be filled by migrants desperate for work, they can afford to ban entire nations of migrants if governments request “too much” reform. Saudi Arabia’s ban on Indonesian and Filipino maids last year demonstrates the reality of this relationship.
But migrants’ desire to work in Saudi Arabia illustrates another aspect of this dynamic; both parties benefit from the flow of labor. Much of the Gulf’s recent innovations in the past two decades would have been impossible without the labor of foreign workers. In turn, migrant-sending governments rely on remittances to satisfy the economic needs of their populations. Substantive bilateral and multilateral cooperation is thus essential to balancing the profits and responsibility in this critical relationship.