North America, Europe Should Open Borders to Migrant Workers From Gulf States


It is true that the working conditions of labor migrants in the Gulf states are far from optimal, but apart from the isolated instances described on PolicyMic by Karen Lickteig to improve the situation, there is very little incentive for countries such as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia to make reforms on a larger scale.

The reality is that thousands of men and women from Africa and Asia continue to flock every year to the Gulf in pursuit of employment and higher wages than in their home country. Reasons are diverse, but they share one commonality: Theirs is a temporary migration and there is a will to return home in the foreseeable future.

Through various policies and pressure from certain industries, the Gulf states eased the immigration process, mainly because their native population cannot fill all the jobs that their furious economies have to offer (Saudis make up about 80% of Saudi Arabia’s population, but Bahrainis, Kuwaitis, Qataris, and Emiratis are a minority in their own country — they represent 46%, 34%, 20%, and 17% respectively).

In an economy where the offer (migrants) is larger than the demand (Gulf states), it is easier for the latter to impose its own conditions of employment.

One way to increase the demand and potentially improve the working conditions of migrants in the Gulf is for other developed nations, especially in North America and Europe, to open their own borders and jump on the bandwagon of temporary migration. With a broader choice of destinations, migrant workers would be better equipped to choose more satisfying working conditions.

Migrant workers are often low-skilled laborers employed in the primary and secondary sectors of the economy, and they have become a necessity in North American and Europe, whose citizens are becoming increasingly high-skilled and generally seek employment in the service sector.

For example, after Alabama’s immigration law came into effect this year and undocumented migrant workers were barred from employment, farmers complained that they could no longer find people to work in their fields. The Americans who replaced the (mostly) Hispanics proved unfit and unwilling for the difficult job of harvesting produce.

A better solution would have been to provide temporary documentation for the migrant workers so they can fill the employment gaps.

Because temporary migration is all that is desired and needed. Although not the sole reasons for working abroad, young Egyptians spend time in Saudi Arabia to be able to pay for their wedding at home; Filipinos work in the United Arab Emirates to pay for their children’s higher education; and Bangladeshis go to Bahrain to provide extra financial support to their families.

Unfortunately, arguing to North Americans and Europeans that migrant workers do not prefer to live indefinitely in their “better” countries is met with incomprehension, and popular xenophobia makes labor migration a tough sell for politicians.

However, temporary migration will always exist, and enacting laws and creating systems that favors it in North America and Europe would encourage the Gulf states to improve the working conditions of foreign workers.

The Gulf states have become dependent on foreign low-skilled laborers and if they want to continue attracting them, they will have to remain competitive. 

Photo Credit: Paul Keller