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.

"Does Dubai feel like home?" I asked my Indian driver. It seemed like a reasonable question. He had lived in Dubai for 18 years. "No, sir," he said, incredulously, as if I had asked him if he likes scorpions in his shorts. "This is not home." Nor will it ever be. No matter how long he stays, he can't become a citizen.

His life is on hold, waiting for the day he can return home, a rich man, relatively speaking. I visited Kerala, the Indian state that provides the gulf with thousands of workers. Most houses were the faltering shacks you'd expect to see in rural, impoverished India. Every once in a while, though, I'd spot a house that was bigger, more elaborate, designed to impress. I asked my guide to explain. "Gulf worker," he chirped. Nothing more needed to be said. They may be on the bottom rung of the ladder in the gulf, but the foreign worker is a pasha at home.

This kind of arrangement works, sort of, in the Persian Gulf, but it is not likely to catch on in this country. Americans are too enthusiastic about work themselves to wish for a lifetime of vacation. More important, an economy built on the sweat of foreign workers—even well-paid workers, humanely treated workers—does not jibe with the American notion of immigration. People come to America to escape a foreign devil, to pursue a dream, and, yes, to make a buck. But never is it only about the buck. That is our national myth, at least. And we certainly don't want an army of guest workers to convince us that we have been lying to ourselves.

Eric Weiner is author of the forthcoming book The Geography of Bliss, to be published in 2008.