Posted on January 28, 2008 in Washington Watch

Last week, officials from over two dozen nations and international organizations met in Abu Dhabi, UAE, to address the critical issue of labor migration. By any measure, it was a meeting of consequence.

Called “The Abu Dhabi Dialogue on Temporary Contractual Labor,” the conference brought together Ministers from 22 Asian countries, evenly divided between the eleven nations which supply the ever-increasing flow of migratory labor, and the eleven that contract with this labor force to sustain the dynamic growth of their economies. Also on hand were representatives from international organizations, such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM, which co-facilitated the effort with the Ministry of Labor of the UAE), the International Labor Organization, and a number of United Nations and regional labor groupings.

Labor migration is not a new phenomenon. In the 19th and 20th centuries, for example, the economies of the West were fueled by immigration from Europe and Asia. But this contemporary movement of labor within Asia is different, and, therefore, poses some unique challenges. As described by the Director General of the IOM, “most of the contemporary mobility for work is of a temporary and circular nature,” meaning quite simply, that to a great degree, this movement of labor within Asia is not immigration in the traditional sense. Rather, it is, “temporary contractual labor,” wherein workers are hired under contract with the understanding that they will eventually return to their home countries at the end of their employment.

Ideally, this situation should provide benefits to all parties involved. The sending countries benefit because their nationals who cannot find employment at home, are able to secure jobs abroad. The families of these workers receive regular remittances, often much greater than they could earn within their countries. And the receiving countries benefit from these skilled and unskilled laborers who assist in their economic growth and development.

The numbers are striking. In the Arab Gulf alone, the number of temporary contractual workers is upwards of 13 million. And the amount of remittances they provide to their families and home countries equals about $60 billion per year (an amount, it was noted, which is greater than the direct foreign investment and foreign assistance these countries receive).

These benefits are clear, but the reality is that this process is far from ideal. There are unmet expectations, unscrupulous recruiters and employers, lack of capacity in some countries to provide needed protections, and a host of other difficulties. These problems exist in both sending and receiving countries.

Because this phenomenon is relatively new, and because it has grown so dramatically in the past two decades, only now are the problems of temporary contractual labor being significantly addressed. Building on a 2003 meeting where “sending” countries alone met to discuss this issue, the Abu Dhabi dialogue represented a first effort to bring together stakeholders from both “sending” and “receiving” nations to develop a shared understanding of concerns and, in the words of the UAE Minister of Labor, to develop an “emerging partnership” that would “advance creative and effective solutions to problems, and agree to assign clear responsibilities at each phase of the contractual employment cycle.”

The sessions concluded with the 22 Ministers endorsing the Abu Dhabi Declaration, which established four partnerships that were designed to: enhance knowledge and share information about labor migration; assist countries to build capacity by providing training and assisting in the development of a framework of laws to address the many issues that affect contractual labor; prevent illegal practices and improve the quality of life of migratory workers; and provide a smooth transition for workers as they begin their employment and again to reintegrate them back into their home countries.

Of course, given the magnitude and newness of this situation, even with the formal consensus, there remain hurdles to overcome. Some parties, for example, persist in denial, seeking to diminish the seriousness of issues that must be addressed, while others act as if no solution short of immediate and dramatic transformation would be acceptable. As the dialogue demonstrated, however, these views were in the minority.

What cannot be lost sight of is the fact that, by recognizing what one participating Minister called this “tidal wave of labor movement,” and by successfully bringing together prime stakeholders to develop an action plan of partnerships, the Abu Dhabi Declaration represented, as the IOM Director General noted, “a very big first step” on the way to making “overseas work more effective and more humane.”

Washington Watch is a weekly column written by AAI President James Zogby. The views expressed within this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Arab American Institute.

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