The employment of overseas contract labor is a critical policy issue for the GCC region. Foreign workers are required to meet the huge demand for labor in sectors such as construction and the services industry, and the scale of migration to the Gulf States makes the region a major player in the global migration and development field.
Available research indicates that mobility is an important policy tool for improving the economies and lives of many people in source countries. Effective policies and planning by governments and international institutions to enable efficient mobility of labor can result in higher investments in skills acquisition and significant improvements in economic development.
The GCC region needs clearer definitions of concepts vital to the study of this field (such as ‘development’, or ‘labor mobility’ vs. ‘labor migration’) and more robust data on the effects of labor migration to the GCC region on country of origin and destination, as a basis for policies that balance opportunities and rights for expatriate workers. Cost analyses are also needed to ensure that an over-reliance on migration and remittances does not result in further poverty traps.
Policies that take account of the fact that temporary migration in reality often becomes long term must be considered. Such policies must also recognize the implications of this for the host society and the families and communities in migrants’ countries of origin.
The UAE should involve private companies in paying part of the social costs of labor migration. The Government could set a carefully-gauged minimum wage to protect foreign workers from exploitation, discourage the employment of low-skilled workers, and over the long run help the country move toward more sophisticated production technologies and higher quality products.
Collecting and maintaining the right data on migration should be undertaken jointly with the countries of origin and relevant international organizations. Organizations such as IOM, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and UN agencies should play a more active role in maintaining data on migration and development, particularly for Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Better data on the migration history of foreign workers could be derived from the national ID systems and possible future migration surveys of all incoming workers.
Given some of the large disparities evident in the available official statistics, there is an urgent need for a network of academics, researchers and international organizations to look at the exact demographic composition and migration trends in the GCC countries, and how they might evolve in the future. This process would be enhanced by better mechanisms for academic exchange. The open sharing of research and information would help inform coherent policy making within the region and with other partners.
The Pacific and African models are relevant for the GCC region, above all in showing how migration can affect the development of both origin and destination countries. Bilateral labor agreements can be useful to frame the shared responsibilities of both countries; and employers and the private sector could help meet respective development needs at both ends.
A general policy message is that labor-sending governments should find ways to maximize the return on investments by migrants and build an attractive environment for remittance inflows. Regarding the impact of remittances on poverty, countries should consider incorporating policies on migration into the global dialogue on poverty. Migrant savings in destination countries are another significant resource that rivals the size of remittances flows, yet are not fully understood or researched. These savings can be mobilized via diaspora bonds for investments in origin countries.
The more immediate policy message is to improve the data and research on migrant contributions to development and the links among all the sectors affected by migration, for example, by adding more geographic diversity in future migration and remittance studies, in particular to capture South–South experiences and by looking at the whole picture of migrants’ financial and non-financial contributions to development, and their drivers. These would include social impacts on families, such as children born abroad; fertility implications; impacts on host countries’ economies, labor markets, jobs, wages, social structures, etc; global markets as drivers of remittances and other migrant “returns”; reverse remittances; complementarities with trade networks; skills and technology transfers; and mobilization of diaspora savings using diaspora bonds for investment in origin countries.
UN and other international organizations should play a more active role in this. For example, the Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development project (KNOMAD), which is being implemented over the next five years and involves a multi-disciplinary approach and peer review of all research and policy documents on migration and development, will create a credible knowledge base to support better data and improved policies. KNOMAD could offer an effective partnership for regional institutions and stakeholders.
Building on the cooperation already achieved by the Abu Dhabi Dialogue, there is a need for governments in the GCC region to expand their policy engagement and research focus and strengthen cooperation between academics and policy makers so that a diverse agenda of issues could be debated and addressed. Regional research and academic institutes could undertake the necessary research, especially given the high research capacity and potential in the region.
Scholars should become more engaged with migration and development, and help shape the outcomes of the global debate on the issues. This could be further propelled through closer collaboration with partner institutions in the countries and regions of migrant origin, and with the support of universities and research institutes in other countries as well as expert international organizations, such as the IOM and the World Bank.
An analytical framework and research agenda are required for the GCC region to collect, analyze and share data on labor mobility into and within the region, as well as to measure its developmental impacts on countries of origin and destination, in support of evidence-based regional policymaking. The Abu Dhabi Dialogue could be instrumental in supporting such a framework.
As part of a move towards greater engagement, the GCC countries should address certain policy shortcomings and challenges of mutual interest to all partners which had hitherto been neglected by both research and policy. These include women migrants, second- and third-generation migrants, family reunification, and the different dynamics and needs of skilled and unskilled migration.
Regional governments have expressed their commitment to developing strategies with countries of origin to address the vulnerabilities migrants are exposed to through the transnational labor recruitment system, and to promoting migrants’ human rights and access to legal protection.
Migrant source countries bear the primary responsibility for protecting and enabling their expatriates abroad; but a strong case can be made for joint engagement, which could go a long way towards informing and linking policy at both ends of the labor corridor, and achieving optimal benefits for all from labor mobility.
More collaboration and networking is required among academics, research institutes, international organizations and governments in and between the GCC states and Asian countries of origin. These should jointly take stock of existing data and fill the gaps with evidence and research to inform complementary policies at both ends of labor mobility in greater Asia. The following areas of collaboration are identified for research attention: ensuring ethical recruitment, lowering the costs of migration, optimizing gains from remittances, raising awareness about contract workers’ contributions to countries of destination, skills development of expatriate workers, ensuring productive use of remittances.