Guest workers have played an integral role in the Gulf since the 1970s where the demographic changes accompanying these labor flows occurred at an extraordinarily rapid pace. The region’s aggregate population has increased more than tenfold in a little over half a century, but in no other region of the world do citizens comprise such a small proportion of the population. While this ‘demographic imbalance’ makes the Gulf unique, what differentiates it is not its economic and demographic expansion through migration but the degree to which the region’s governments have excluded foreign workers from being integrated into the national polity. This exclusion of foreign workers is a result of a conscious policy.
Labor migration to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are mostly governed under a sponsorship system known as Kafala. Migrant workers require a national sponsor (called Kafeel) and are only allowed to work for the visa sponsoring firm. The workers must obtain a no-objection certificate from the sponsor to resign and have to leave the country upon termination of the usual 2 to 3 years’ contract before being allowed to commence a new contract under a new sponsor. Tied to the sponsor, the migrants become immobile within the internal labor market for the duration of the contract. Consequently the sponsors benefit from non-competitive environments where they extract substantial economic rents from migrant workers at the expense of inducing significant inefficiencies in production.
The Kafeels pay workers an income above the wage in their country of origin and obtain economic rents equal to the difference between such earnings and the net marginal return from employing the migrant worker. Migrant workers are paid the initial nominal wage throughout the entire contractual period. They are even made to accept lower wages than contracted initially. Immobilized by labor restrictions, workers cannot command a higher wage even when there is demand for their services by rival firms willing to hire them in order to avoid the cost of hiring from abroad. Kafeels have also found other ways of extracting rents in recent decades by indulging in visa trading. They allow their names to be used to sponsor foreign workers in exchange for monetary gains.
Arguably, rents per-se should not directly create adverse effects because they are essentially redistributive transfers. Earnings paid to migrants are sufficient to motivate them to migrate. The migrants do not leave. But this view is over-simplistic. The combination of short contracts, flat wages, and lack of internal mobility kills the incentives for migrant workers to exercise higher effort levels in production and engage in activities that enhance their human capital. Any productivity gain would go to the sponsor in the form of rents. The system provides incentives to entrepreneurs to concentrate on low-skills, labor-intensive activities where the extraction of economic rents is easier. Such sponsor-worker behavior explains for instance why despite the massive investments in Dubai, the economy-wide efficiency levels (average labor productivity) have not improved in the last two decades while in Hong Kong, they doubled and in Singapore quadrupled.
Migration and Remittances
- ending poverty
- South Asia
- Urban Development
- Social Development
- Private Sector Development
- Migration and Remittances
- Information and Communication Technologies
- Global Economy
- Climate Change
- Agriculture and Rural Development
- South Asia
- Sri Lanka
Migrant workers sent $6.77 billion home to Bangladesh in July-December, down 8.41% from the same time a year ago. For the first time in recent memory, Bangladesh has experienced a decline in remittances in the first half of the fiscal year.
There are four factors that can potentially account for the decline in remittances: the stock of Bangladeshi migrants abroad, earnings per migrant worker, their average propensity to save, and their average propensity to remit money home out of those savings.
The standard refrain appears to be that the flow of remittance has declined because the stock of Bangladeshi migrants abroad is not growing like it used to. This is because of two reasons. First, Bangladesh is failing to send more workers abroad to traditional markets and exploring new markets. Only 450,000 migrants managed oversees jobs in 2013, down by more than 33% from 680,000 in 2012. Second, the number of migrant workers returning to Bangladesh has also increased because the government could not resolve problems related to the legal status of Bangladeshi migrant labors in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait through diplomatic channels. Unfortunately, there is no reliable time series on the annual number of migrant returnees from abroad.
Is that the full story? I doubt it although it is generally assumed that the current migrant workers are sending money home as per their maximum capacities and have little capacity to increase the flow.
For centuries, cities have been the beacon for economic prosperity. Drawn by the promise of economic, social and political opportunity, more than half the world’s population live in cities today. In India alone, 90 million people migrated from farms to cities in the last decade. The prospect of higher wages and better living standards is expected to draw 250 million more by 2030.
Urban success is based on economies of agglomeration -- where density increases the ease of moving goods, people, and ideas – increasing productivity. However, compared to other emerging economies, Indian cities do not appear to have captured gains from economic concentration. While the service sector and high-tech manufacturing have benefitted from agglomeration more than other sectors, overall urban productivity has not kept pace with India’s economic growth. In fact, the urban share of national employment has not increased between 1993 and 2006.
Are the costs of density overwhelming the benefits from clustering?
In the World Bank, we recently did a report titled Bangladesh: Towards Accelerated, Inclusive and Sustainable Growth—Opportunities and Challenges. For this study, we did a survey of 1,000 garment firms to get their perspectives on the drivers and obstacles to urban competitiveness. I report below some key findings from the survey presented in the growth report.
Dhaka City is still the most productive location for garment firms in Bangladesh. Access to markets and a relatively better quality of power supply are Dhaka city’s main comparative advantages. Dhaka has the best-performing city locations for access to skilled labor and power supply––the two factors garment firms’ value most when deciding on location––proximity to suppliers, sub-contractors, machine-repair technicians and support businesses.
Dhaka is falling behind other locations in accessibility and, for some firms, Dhaka city’s costs have started outweighing opportunities. Dhaka is the worst-performing location for urban mobility and access to the highway. Firms in the city also are disadvantaged in access to the port and airport, compared to those located in Chittagong city. Both firms and workers located in Dhaka also struggle with limited availability and high prices of land and housing.