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Identities, Conflict and Cohesion Programme Paper 2: Migrant Workers and Xenophobia in the Middle East

7 Jun 2004

  • Author(s): Ray Jureidini


In this paper, formal redress mechanisms and non-state assistance are examined to determine the extent to which local problems that migrants face can be, and are, addressed. Policy suggestions are offered for improving relations between migrants and host communities, employers, recruitment agencies and governments.

Ray Jureidini finds that as increasing numbers of “cheap” foreign workers from Asian and African countries have fulfilled the demand for unskilled workers, so the particular kinds of jobs found in the secondary labour markets have become racialized. That is, the dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs become associated with foreign (Asian and African) workers to such a degree that nationals in these countries refuse to undertake them, despite high levels of poverty and unemployment.

This paper addresses, in particular, the peculiarities of temporary foreign contract labour in Middle Eastern receiving countries. It argues that temporary foreign workers are not formally “free” in receiving countries, because they cannot access the local labour markets in the receiving country without express permission from the state. Temporary workers who do leave their employers/sponsors (or attempt to run away) are rendered illegal and are subject to arrest and deportation.

Foreign contract employees are the preferred migrants to Middle Eastern countries, as there are no expectations of permanent settlement or citizenship rights. Most countries do not cover such employees under local labour laws, and no UN or ILO conventions that offer national or international protection are in force or ratified, particularly for unskilled labourers.

Particular focus is given to the racist dimensions of the treatment of Asian domestic workers in the Middle East. It is also found that Asian female live-in domestic workers live under conditions that have been likened to slavery.

The xenophobic dimension is found to have three aspects. First, it is evident in the preference of temporary contract labour that excludes possibilities of citizenship. Second, preferential treatment is usually given to nationals, although particular kinds of menial work have now been “allocated” to foreigners. Third, the attitude of disdain toward those who are visibly different (particularly Asians) is observed in public places such as supermarkets, airports and government offices.

While a number of suggestions are made with regard to formal redress mechanisms to alleviate or eliminate forms of racism and slavery in Middle Eastern countries, it is noted that such reforms may affect the labour market in terms of the demand for foreign workers. If this is the case, governments of both receiving and sending countries may not be sufficiently supportive of serious reform.

Ray Jureidini is associate professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut.

Order PP ICC 2 from UNRISD ($12 for readers in industrialized countries and $ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students). The report is also available electronically and without charge from www.unrisd.org