What's wrong with guest-worker programs.

Lessons for the U.S. from abroad.
Aug. 15 2005 2:59 PM

Thanks for Your Hard Work. Now Get Out!

Can a Persian Gulf-style guest-worker program succeed in the U.S.?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.
Click image to expand.

I remember arriving in Kuwait for the first time, eager to meet average Kuwaitis. Only one problem—I couldn't find any Kuwaitis, average or otherwise. My taxi driver was Indian, my hotel clerk Filipino, and my bellhop Bangladeshi. Undeterred, I ventured to an outdoor market. It was teeming with people but, again, no Kuwaitis. How, I wondered, could there be no Kuwaitis in Kuwait?

I eventually did find actual Kuwaitis—at the shopping malls, of course. (Why hadn't I thought of that in the first place?) But my experience revealed a little-known fact of life in the oil-rich Persian Gulf countries: Foreigners do most of the work.

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Just as we Americans hire Mexicans to do the jobs we don't want to do, the gulf Arabs import workers to do the work they consider beneath them. The difference is that there is a lot more beneath them than us. In several gulf states, including Kuwait, the locals are a minority—a tiny minority—in their own country. Only 17 percent of the population of Dubai, for instance, is local. The rest are foreign workers. You won't find gulf Arabs waiting on tables or, for that matter, managing restaurants. You will find precious few working for travel agents or hotels or anywhere other than the cushiest of government positions.

Who can blame them? With oil prices at record highs, there is little incentive for gulf Arabs to get their hands dirty, or even a bit dusty. Let's say you are lucky enough, for instance, to be a citizen of Qatar, one of the richest of the gulf states. The government will pay for your education and then provide you with a generous monthly stipend for life. They'll give you a plot of land and build you a house. Oh, and there are no taxes. No wonder Qatar has a problem with worker motivation.

A system of foreign workers seems like a logical trade-off. The gulf states need workers. The workers need jobs. For the most part, the system has worked, at least from an economic point of view. Might a similar "guest worker" system work in the United States? President Bush thinks so, arguing that a guest-worker program is "a way to let somebody come and do jobs American won't do, on a temporary basis," and Congress is now considering a number of such proposals. The experience in the Persian Gulf offers some lessons—and warnings.

Here's how the system works in the gulf. A foreigner, let's say an Indian, wants to work in Saudi Arabia. He (or, less likely, she) must first find a sponsor—a government agency or private company in Saudi Arabia that is willing to offer him a job and vouch for him. The worker can stay in the country only for as long as the sponsor supports him. In some cases, sponsors confiscate the worker's passport, raising valid concerns about indentured servitude. Workers can switch sponsors but not easily and sometimes at great cost. In some gulf countries, foreign workers need exit visas to leave the country. Ostensibly, this is to ensure that they don't leave behind a pile of debt. But in practice it often means that employers can hold workers hostage. The U.S. State Department recently pointed out these and other abuses in unusually undiplomatic language.

(There is an unwritten caste system for guest workers. Nepalis work on construction sites, Indians drive taxis. Egyptians and Jordanians work in government offices. There is also a sliding-pay scale based on nationality or, to put it more bluntly, prejudices. Filipino maids earn more than Indonesian maids who, in turn, earn more than Sri Lankans.)

What happens to a country when most of its workforce is foreign? Many things, it turns out, and none of them good. Arab culture and language are being swamped by the flood of foreigners. In Dubai, for instance, a Moroccan woman I learned about couldn't find a job because she did not speak English. She was, of course, fluent in Arabic, the official language of the United Arab Emirates.

More ominously, a bored, underemployed citizenry is ideal fodder for radical Islamic groups. That is something the Saudi government, at least, has recognized for some time. It has talked about phasing out foreign workers since 1980. It has had little success and, now, with oil prices hovering around $65 a barrel, the "Saudi-ization" of the economy is not likely to happen anytime soon.

The truth is that nobody really has an interest in seeing the foreign-worker system dismantled. Not the gulf countries, not the foreign workers—and certainly not their governments. For countries like India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, the money that these workers send home represents a huge source of hard currency. The Philippines treats its OFWs—Overseas Filipino Workers—like returning war heroes, with giant billboards honoring them and even a fast-track queue at the Manila airport.