They came, they worked, and they went home

With the harrowing pictures of the riot in Little India still vivid, Singaporeans may be forgiven for believing that they are alone in confronting the complex challenges of dealing with foreign workers.

But nothing can be further from the truth. The use of foreign - or "guest" workers as they are sometimes more gingerly referred to - is well-established and far more widespread than many people realise. The phenomenon is also growing in significance. And although it does generate some social problems, the large movement of foreign workers remains one of the global economy's biggest achievements.

Mass migrations of people in search of better economic opportunities are, of course, as old as humanity itself. But the organised, regulated importation of labour started only in the late 19th century, when borders between nations began to be stringently policed and immigration controls were introduced. Unsurprisingly, the first large-scale guest worker schemes were conceived in Europe and North America, the world's wealthiest regions then. And, with the exception of the so-called Bracero Programme in the United States which brought in labourers from Mexico, all the other foreign worker schemes were aimed at importing labour from poorer European countries, rather than from what we call today the Third World.

Guest workers in Europe

In a pioneering scheme launched in 1945 but now largely forgotten by history, France began importing Italians, Spaniards and Portuguese to compensate for its population shortfall as a result of two world wars. They came in droves: about two million within one decade.

The French scheme was soon followed by the more famous German programme which invented the concept of the "Gastarbeiter", or guest worker. The first Gastarbeiter were recruited from European nations, particularly Italy. But Turkey asked to be included in the scheme, and the US prevailed upon the German government to accept Turks, in order to strengthen the Western alliance during the Cold War. All told, about six million people came this way, about four million of them Turks.

Both schemes are now largely remembered in Europe as failures.

The French programme was meant to confine the task of recruiting workers to the respective governments but, in practice, French employees imported their workers directly, and illegally; officials subsequently legalised these immigrants during the 1960s without ever getting to grips with the scheme.

And the Turkish "guests" who were meant to be in Germany on a temporary basis decided to stay put; as it turned out, there was nothing more permanent than the temporary. By the early 1980s, Professor Stephen Castles of Oxford University had characterised all these schemes as flops: "The guest worker systems of Western Europe are dead," he wrote. "The guest workers are no longer with us: either they have gone or they have been transmogrified into settlers and marginalised into ethnic minorities."

But what Europe abandoned, other parts of the world took up: from the late 1970s, oil-rich Middle Eastern nations and newly industrialised countries in Asia launched their own foreign worker schemes. Most of these arrangements tried to avoid the mistakes committed by the Europeans, especially by making sure that foreign labour programmes did not end up as ill-disguised immigration schemes.

Guest workers from afar

However, other problems cropped up, especially when political considerations intervened.

The small but wealthy Gulf sheikhdoms had the option of importing workers from other Arab nations such as Egypt, Morocco and Algeria, which have large populations. But the Gulf monarchies feared the potentially destabilising effect of admitting large numbers of fellow Arabs, so they preferred to import workers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh instead.

These workers now outnumber locals by a ratio of 10 to one; the Gulf states are effectively run by foreigners on behalf of the national governments, and it is perfectly normal for a visiting businessman to conduct all his affairs in a Gulf state without ever having to deal with a local.

Israel, another large importer of labour, also played politics with foreign workers. It initially planned to use Palestinian labour, but when the Palestinians launched their revolt against Israeli rule, the Jewish state brought in workers from Thailand, the Philippines and China, becoming yet another example of a country which has plenty of surplus labour on its doorstep but opts instead to recruit workers from farther afield.

Israel is now discovering that the politics of labour supply can work both ways: Romania, a large provider of workers, has just instructed its construction employees to refuse any contracts on building sites in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Still, the reason such foreign worker schemes continue to spread is that they make economic sense. Labour-intensive industries faced with rising costs can and do move their operations to countries with cheaper labour.

But industries such as construction, mining, agriculture and services are geographically dependent and therefore cannot move; they can only survive by either paying prohibitively high salaries to locals, or by importing people willing to perform the so-called "3D jobs": those which are dirty, difficult and dangerous.

Foreign labour is not a matter of choice, but of necessity. And if anyone doubts that, a look at South Korea and Japan should suffice. Both countries were eager to defend the ethnically homogeneous character of their nations by pretending that they did not need foreign worker schemes. Both, however, ended up importing labour through the back door, usually under the pretence of offering "apprenticeships".

The results were high labour prices in the services industries, widespread shortages of workers and literally millions of illegal or undocumented immigrants, the worst of all worlds.

As Professor Park Won Woo, a Korean scholar who documented this experience, concluded, the foreigners who ended up working under these circumstances "subsequently left Korea with a negative view of the Koreans' ethnocentric attitude".

More protection

The moral of the story is that regulating the importation of foreign workers is not only a more honest way of dealing with inevitable labour shortages, but also the only way of offering these workers effective protection.

How much protection they should enjoy is a matter of legitimate debate, and some of the allegations being made about the treatment of foreign workers in the Gulf are distressing. Nevertheless, the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which now target labour-importing states such as Qatar for special criticism should not be allowed to skew the debate by crowding out all other arguments.

For while nothing justifies dawn-to-dusk work and miserable housing conditions for foreign workers, it is also a fact that, at least for some of the workers from the world's poorest states, the dorms in which they live in places such as the Middle East are better than the ones they have back home. And it is also a fact that, as back-breaking as some of their jobs are, they are still better than no job at all, which is often their only alternative.

Anything that artificially raises the price of labour - which is what NGOs effectively demand when they put forward proposals for extra free time and better working conditions for foreign labourers - will ultimately curb demand for this labour. And the first to lose their jobs will be the least skilled, precisely the people intervention is supposed to help.

This doesn't mean that no improvements should be considered.

Recreational opportunities, particularly for single young males, need to be improved everywhere.

Caps on the size of commissions charged by financial intermediaries who handle the remittances of foreign workers are required, particularly in the Middle East, where they can whittle away the workers' hard-earned money.

The fees charged by the labour agencies recruiting workers also need looking into.

But all these measures are necessary so that foreign worker programmes continue and expand: China, whose population will soon start to fall, is sure to become the biggest user of such schemes in the future. Notwithstanding all the problems which they generate, foreign labour schemes still amount to the largest and most sustained transfer of resources, empowering millions of people who otherwise would have faced no prospects.

So, Law Minister K. Shanmugam's simple reassurance to foreign workers who respect the rules is worth repeating: "What objectives you had in mind when you came to Singapore, they will be fulfilled."

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com


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