You’ve read the horror stories from Dubai. Beyond all that glitz and glamor lies a dark underbelly: The wretched lives of the mostly Indian and Pakistani men who actually build the place, clean it, and make sure everything works.
It’s all too typical to read media reports describing these men as being transported like cattle onto scorched earth building sites, where they work all day. At night, the story goes, they are corralled into substandard bunkhouses, where they eat bad food and drink worse water. Much of this is not in dispute.
What is important to consider is the idea that migrant workers in the Gulf are paid badly, or unfairly. Foreigners who come to work in oil-rich Gulf countries can make as little as $125 a month. Some analysts call this income tantamount to slavery. Others go further, calling that level of pay a systematic outrage that makes the world a worse place.
But what if precisely the opposite is true? What if, in fact, the earning power of these men — many of whom come from desperately poor countries where it is quite difficult to make $125 in a year — means that money sent back home is systematically and incrementally making those poor villages better. What if, truly, the system of foreign laborers in the Middle East is ultimately and on the balance better for the world than a system like the United States’, which has laws requiring companies to pay workers well but also in the end guarantees that this class of migrant workers is doomed never to profit in the U.S. economy.
John Gravois writes a fascinating essay on the topic in the current issue of the The Review. (Full disclosure: Gravois is a good friend and I am a regular contributor to The Review.) At the core of the article is Lant Pritchett, a Harvard economist who is on the forefront of the dea that unskilled migrant labor may represent the key to international development. Consider this:
In Pritchett’s view, countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – which employ armies of guest workers, house them in labour camps, forbid them from organising unions, often deny them equal protection under the law and pay them the wages of an underclass – are actually doing more to redress the inequities of the world than western nations that maintain high labour standards but keep migrants out.
But what do the workers themselves say? I live in Saudi Arabia, among an army of such laborers. It’s typical for people to complain: After all, so far from home, pummeled both by the difficult and unfamiliar climate and the intensely severe religious restrictions, these men are lonely and often off-kilter. But what if, as Pritchett suggests, they are indeed nudging the global balance sheet towards more equality?
It’s certainly hard to see photos of dust-covered laborers trudging to work in 130 degree temperatures as wealthy oil barons cruise by in BMWs. As Gravois writes: “Our deeply conflicted, not-yet-global sense of morality finds something repugnant in the proximity of extremes. But what if proximity is the only thing that can narrow the chasm between those extremes? Is the situation of labour in the Emirates a symptom of inequity or its cure?”
Read John’s story and prepare to have your world view altered.