Perhaps it's an unusual subject to write about as a long-time “migrant worker” myself, but it is a subject that is never far from the news. The pictures of thousands of people fleeing economic or political privations in their home countries are often in the headlines – in Mexico, the English Channel, Spanish enclaves in Morocco, or adrift in the Mediterranean.
Many of the most economically developed countries have an ageing population, and can only sustain growth through importing labour, year after year. The USA has thrived on immigration for two hundred years, Germany famously opened its doors to “guest workers” to fuel its growth in the 1980s, and others like the UK and France, Italy and Japan are increasingly dependent on a supply of working-age immigrants.
The influx of hundreds of thousands of new workers and families provokes a strange mix of political reactions. On the one hand, politicians stir up anxiety about “economic migrants”, while on the other, businesses beg for increasingly open borders and a more flexible labour market. The public policy responses are often contradictory as a result: Those who voted for the UK to close its borders to Europeans probably didn't intend for them to be replaced by new arrivals from India, Bangladesh and Nepal, but that is the reality.
The GCC has a more transparent and clear system, led by employer needs. But it is also a strange situation as the population is mostly young, while the migrant labour market is proportionally the biggest in the world. The dynamite rate of growth in the 1970s and 1980s made this essential, but it has also created a structural legacy. Young people in the GCC cannot find jobs.
The main reason is that they now have to compete with lower pay, and perhaps a more malleable and dependent worker who is under complete control through the sponsorship system. It is a well-known problem to the authorities, but a difficult policy to get right: keeping proper accountability on one hand, while not taking away the livelihoods of citizens who benefit on the other: many citizens make an additional income, or even a good living, from being “sponsors” of migrant workers.
The question of how to get more young GCC nationals employed is probably the most important and vexing to all their governments. Businesses can be forced to employ more locals but this is always unpopular and has other negative externalities: inefficient duplication of jobs, ill-feeling against employees who are made to feel like a burden or a tax, and a lack of training and investment in the careers of nationals. Companies also complain that there is a shortage of skilled employees, and every country competes for specialised and experienced talent. But in reality, over 98 per cent of migrant workers in the Gulf are unskilled or semi-skilled. Few speak Arabic, or much English, have qualifications or even a driving licence. But while their pay is low and employers prefer a worker who is under 24-hour control, the local national has a hard time to compete. This also has a deep impact on efficiency and competitiveness: companies have little incentive to mechanise and industrialise to more efficient process when labour is so artificially cheap.
So, the government is left to regulate these competing interests, and balance the needs of its young people, the preferences of business – right or wrong – and the interests of all the families who subsidise their own lives by sponsoring others.
There have been successes: forty years ago, banking was a multi-national sector. Now it is 99 per cent localised. Telecom, oil and gas, even customer service is now highly localised – and better for the consumer because of it. According to the NCSI (official Oman statistical body), there are over 40,000 jobs in the retail sector. I am always amazed to walk into a luxury store in a big mall and find an employee who doesn't know the product, speaks poor English and no Arabic. Perhaps starting with the biggest and most up-market outlets, retail should be the next sector to benefit from high localisation. The youngest generation, even of school leavers now, are confident with English thanks to globalised social media, they have realistic expectations about what having a job means, and they are queuing up to work. One supermarket said that they have a waiting list of hundreds to work on the checkout. I hope others will open the doors soon: migrant labour will always be needed, but nationals need jobs and the excuses in some sectors are getting very thin.
From the girl who served my wife's breakfast sandwich, the man who arranged my home broadband (and the other who installed and tested it), to the helpful ladies in the bank today, I was glad they were all Omani. I hope next time I go to buy a watch or a waffle, there will be a young Omani ready to help.