Different destinations – similar problems

Our purpose is to document, first hand, the work of labour attachés throughout Asia Pacific and, from them, to learn how they approach their work and their constituency, especially during a time of shifting uncertainty. Their task is a difficult one. While working within the constraints of a diplomatic mission; nevertheless, they are called on to intervene between workers, employers and labour brokers to ensure, to the extent possible, that contractual obligations are met and that workers are treated fairly and with dignity. It is a thankless task.

The scope of our study

In reading through the case studies presented in Part 2 of this book, two features strike us immediately. Firstly, no matter the geographic location or the national group involved, the types of problems faced by workers and which the labour attachés are called upon to sort out, are broadly similar. Differences emerge between different classes of workers, but within any given category, the problems are much the same. The second, and perhaps more disturbing aspect, is that these are problems that have been around for a long time. Has the quest for “decent work” been a rallying cry? Or, rather, has it been ignored by most people?

A quick examination of the facts as presented here, suggests that while globalization has provided opportunity for those towards the top of the social pyramid, it has had the opposite effect for those near the bottom. For such people – and they are the overwhelming majority – the search for a decent life remains as illusory as it ever was; survival is all they can hope for. And as we will see from several of our studies, even survival is not guaranteed. Too often, we suggest, the prospect of shipping off the poor and unemployed to distant lands has been a means of reducing domestic unemployment and avoiding the need to change policies that would lead to greater domestic investment and greater opportunity to build “growth with employment” in the home country. This of course, could well shift the “balance of power” and disturb a political elite for whom the present system works very well indeed. In many instances it appears that those countries most dependence on remittance earnings of overseas workers, or which merely deploy workers overseas to ease domestic unemployment, are those with relatively low levels of per capita foreign direct investment (FDI).

One of our interlocutors described the mass labour market as the “new slave trade.” We would not go quite as far as that, but there is a ring of realism to such a sentiment. It could go down that road. Workers, particularly in the construction or manufacturing industries, are often seen as commodities to be bought and sold and to be tossed away when they are of no further use. Is this progress? Is this the new paradigm of the 21st Century? Or should we be seeking something better? Frustration is evident. Can anything be done to stop the downward drift?



Irresistible forces and immovable objects

Labour market practitioners would like to believe that the quest for decent work, combining as it does, the goals of poverty reduction, development of human dignity and gender equality, is an irresistible force that is creating its own dynamic. The sheer logic of human decency should make it an appealing vision. But in the real world of balance sheets and profit margins, it is up against the real world economy and that is proving to be hard to move.

As pointed out in the previous chapter, the world is at present facing a global downturn. While economic cycles are a well-known phenomenon, this one feels slightly different. When the upturn comes, will it be a return to business-as-usual or will the world be tracking a different path? It is too early yet to tell, but there are straws in the wind that suggest that the world is turning again, as it has done before of course, and may be charting a slightly different path for the future.

Speculative investment may be more subdued in the future and those that have built on credit may find themselves in trouble. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Emirate of Dubai, a vast tract of former desert that has been caught in the middle of a building frenzy by the change in the economic tide. While the money was flowing, this city-state was a magnet for money, for contracts and for employment. Now that the tide has turned, many have been left stranded. For an economy in which 95 percent of its labour needs are met by an expatriate workforce, this has left everyone very nervous indeed. Downsizing is the norm and for expatriate middle managers, the shock that the dream run may be about to end has left many traumatized. Still, they can get out of it with their savings, or can they? Some stories recounted on our travels suggest that even here some may be in trouble. Many have lived on credit but when faced with termination of employment, bank accounts are frozen and debts are called in. If your cash position at that moment is negative, you can be hauled off to a debtor’s prison.

But these are isolated incidents and while traumatic for the individuals and families concerned, it is the plight of the underclass of workers which is the major problem that labour attachés have to deal with due to the vast numbers involved. According to press reports, some USD 260 billion worth of construction projects in Dubai alone have been put on hold and there have been reports that construction firms have charted fleets of aircraft to transport Indian workers out of the Gulf on either extended leave or for redeployment elsewhere (if indeed, other deployments may be found). The consequences of the downturn for remittance earnings may be severe.



The Dubai story is a parable of extremes but to an extent, the same mood is evident in most markets. The possible exceptions to the rule are those oil-endowed states that have respectable sovereign wealth funds and which may be able to use public sector resources to keep their heads above water. Abu Dhabi and Qatar are two examples worthy of mention.

Nevertheless, it is clear that labour attachés have a new set of problems to deal with and for many of them their role as promoters of labour and employment growth have turned to seeking to protect the jobs of workers already deployed. In fact, a number of scheduled meetings had to be cancelled during my visit to the region simply because the people we were due to see were in “crisis management mode.” Others thought the present climate simply too delicate and sensitive to talk about.

We understood why they should think this way.

A hierarchy of issues

The better educated and professional workers generally deal with their own problems. The exception to this may be when a person runs afoul of the law and winds up in detention or police custody. Then it often becomes a consular problem dealt with by another section of the embassy or consulate.

Indeed, problems associated with legal hazards and the discriminatory treatment of non-nationals were not problems that we dealt with in any detail unless such issues came up as part of a broader case study. Clearly though, these were problems with which many labour attachés had dealt with at one time or another often on the periphery of other problems. As shown in Figure 2-3 these were issues that affected every foreign national employed outside of their home country.



Very often the legal system in their host country could be quite different to that experienced at home; in particular, many reported problems that arose from false accusations as a means of solving a problem under the principle that a person was “guilty until proven innocent” and as such the burden of proof lay with the accused. Other common problems reported were those associated with the need to carry an official identity pass at all times and the dire consequences – including instant incarceration – if one was found in a public place without it. Difference in moral value systems were a further issue that cut across worker class. For example, in a number of countries, a woman found to be pregnant out of wedlock had committed a criminal offence. Little distinction appeared to be made between a woman who had willingly become pregnant through involvement in a relationship, and those who had been raped or forced into prostitution. Each was equally guilty under the law. At best, a woman could expect to be deported in such circumstances, at worst she would be arrested and imprisoned. Extra-marital relationships are similarly considered illegal and usually it is the woman who is charged.

Besides issues that cut across social class, specific categories of workers had their own particular “issues” with which to deal. For those workers towards the top of the employment pyramid — those in the professional or skilled categories of workers — their problems were often internalized and a product of their own career decisions. Even with a privileged life, issues such as job security and credit management were often the issues of greatest concern. But whereas the first of these was to the fore of the conscious mind, the latter was often relegated to the subconscious and only became an issue when employment became insecure. This has been discussed already and while issues that are employment related, they do not appear impinge in any significant way upon the work of labour and welfare staff at diplomatic missions.

A hierarchy of issues


Problems of the rich and influential

Indeed, in relation to the higher categories of worker, the only issue that appeared to involve labour attachés was that associated with job hopping whereby an executive manager would take a position with a foreign employer on, say, a two-year contract only to find after several months that he or she could be employed at a higher salary elsewhere. The help of the labour attaché was then often sought to assist in prematurely terminating the original contract. Quite understandably, this was an issue in which public officials cannot be involved.

But there is a further issue that we came across in our journey, not from discussions with the labour administrations but rather as a result of our informal discussions among expatriate workers. It is the issue of “expectation.” Educated and articulate workers expect service from their embassies and appear not to be shy about demanding it. Should an executive calling his embassy to ask for a telephone number be prioritized over a factory worker who had just been admitted to hospital for a workplace injury? It appears even absurd to ask the question, yet labour attachés confront such situations and have to deal with the complaints that come about when an executive with resources at his or her disposal feel they have not been accorded the recognition they feel is their due.

The reverse of this of course is when a prominent member of the local community seeks to use his or her influence to seek special favours from an embassy or labour officer. Here again there is a difficult line that calls for tact and diplomacy. These are skills that can be acquired but are often not innate and require a labour attaché to have acquired a level of confidence in his or her job as well as the respect of other embassy staff who will stand by the officer in case of any complaint made.

The heart of the job – dealing with the poor and needy

It is the problem of the poor, and especially those deployed overseas as part of a contingent of workers rather than for individual employment that take up most of the time of the overseas labour offices. Within the categories of semi-skilled and lesser-skilled workers we are able to identify three broad groupings of which the first two of them appear to command much of the time and attention of the labour attaché.

Service workers

Service workers are often in the hospitality industry as wait staff in restaurants or junior management personnel operating a fast food outlet, or those performing a range of semi-skilled clerical duties such as checkout operators, book-keepers, sales staff and such-like.

More often than not the employment contracts of these people are with the local branches of multinational companies or local companies operating franchised stores and as such, employers are concerned with their reputation and treat their staff fairly, abiding by the conditions of their contract.

The chief complaint made by this group of people concerns not so much their employers but rather the agencies that recruited them. Many of the people with whom we spoke informally, were angry at the manner of their recruitment and the charges imposed upon them by agencies in their home country. These were not problems that were brought to the attention of labour offices however, as most appeared to write it off to experience. Nevertheless, we did detect an undercurrent among such workers that suggested these people would in future circumvent the agency system if they could and (especially in the Gulf region) by travelling on visitor visas and changing their status to employment visa after arrival. If so, this could have implications for the future administrative workload of labour offices.

Household employees

The second group embraces those employed within local households, recruited either by expatriates from higher social groups or by local families. This category of worker includes domestic helpers, cleaners, janitors, child-minders and care-givers. Often though, it appears that the generic term ‘household employee’ refers to someone who can do all of the above.

Complaints of poor pay and long work hours were commonplace even among those whose complaints were not sufficiently grievous to cause them to run away from their employer.

These complaints cut across country and nationality. The same types of story were evident in Hong Kong, Singapore and in the Gulf. However, stories of contract substitution were most prevalent in the Gulf where it was common – or rather, usual practice, for contracts signed by the employee prior to departure to be replaced upon arrival by a second contract in which always, the pay offered was lower than agreed and, often, the work conditions more onerous.

And this was the best case scenario. At worst, household staff, especially females were subjected to verbal or physical abuse and in some cases, torture. How else would you describe a worker being physically pinned down and having a hot iron applied to her torso for some perceived minor infraction of household rules that could, easily, be only in the mind of the employer?

Women who are both young and pretty appear to be especially vulnerable and accounts of women either lured into or, worse, sold into prostitution are too numerous to ignore. In our case studies we have related two such accounts: the first came from one of the labour attachés interviewed while the other came from an expatriate journalist that we had arranged to meet in Dubai and who was investigating the story of a syndicate that lured women to the Gulf on promises of decent work, only to take away their passports and force them into prostitution after arrival. In one particular case the young woman was abandoned on Kish Island off the coast of Iran by her ‘agency’ and had it not been for friends who managed to make contact with her and get her back to the UAE she could have been left to die. As it was, she returned having contracted tuberculosis and had to be sent back to her home country. Is this an isolated occurrence or part of a bigger problem that is festering beneath the surface? We don’t know but hopefully our journalist friend will eventually have some answers.

The problems of such workers can be a major burden for labour attachés since often they run away from their employer at the first opportunity and arrive at the door of the labour office traumatized and destitute. Often too, they have no passport or other documents with them because of the practice of the employer holding the passport of the employee. Indeed, in some countries, this is required under the law. Such a condition puts the employee in an invidious position since the employer can then report to the police or immigration authorities that the employee has gone missing and the employee is then guilty of an offence (remember, the “guilty until proven innocent” maxim?)

In other instances, domestic employers seek to terminate an employee by the simple expedient of a false allegation. Deportation can be swift and often, the first the labour office hears of a case is after the employee has returned to her country.

Agricultural, construction and industrial workers

The problems of domestic staff are serious but as a group, bad employers are probably the exception to the rule; most employees will serve out their contract in reasonable living and working conditions and will return home at the end; perhaps to take another contract with the same or different employer. Among expatriates, when a good worker comes onto the market, she or he is snapped up and can often work for the highest bidder. Industrial, construction and agricultural workers are in a different class altogether. Here their misery starts from day one of their employment.

Agricultural, construction and industrial workers often face onerous and changed contract conditions as well. Usually, they pay an absurdly high price for the privilege of working overseas, only to find that their pay and conditions of work are often much different to the terms outlined to them before departure.

The segregation of these worker groups from the broader community is often absolute. Besides they would have no money to enjoy the amenities of a modern city, be it Taichung (Taiwan), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) or Dubai (UAE). In the case of factory workers, often they are housed in poor and unsanitary accommodation on the compound of their employer’s factory; in the case of construction workers, especially those working in the Middle East, they are often housed in dusty and dirty work camps in the desert as far away as possible from the rest of the world. We were unsuccessful in being able to visit any such camps but we were able to see from a distance the drabness of such places that seemed to blend (by design) with the desert around them. Often such places could only be seen at night by the floodlights that lit the outer fences. Workers were bused to their worksite six days a week often starting at 6am and continuing until sundown. On their one rest day the lucky ones, at least those in Abu Dhabi that we met, were bused to the local beach where they sat the entire day under the hot sun until the bus came and picked them up in the evening. And these were the lucky ones!

It is not only a problem of segregation and substandard working conditions that appears to pervade the construction and manufacturing industries especially, there are other more serious issues with which to contend.



Lack of safety standards at worksites or factories, failure of employers to provide any form of insurance in case of the injury or death of a worker, failure to pay wages or provide accommodation (forcing workers onto their own resources), all appear to be common problems. Often it seems, companies employ foreign labour to cut costs in an enterprise that is already losing money but which still goes into insolvency leaving workers stranded. Sometimes, too after filing for bankruptcy the same or similar business reopens under another business name.

Failure to provide workers with proper employment permits or falsification of permits appear to be common problems in some places. This practice leaves workers especially vulnerable at the hands of unsympathetic local officials.

In the case of the injury or death of a worker, either because of industrial accident or due to other misfortune, obtaining compensation is often extremely difficult in some places as is the repatriation of remains in case of death.

Workers, it seems often have no other choice before them but to accept such conditions of work knowing that they are joining a lottery where some survive and return home to their families, but others do not return at all. Among the lowest class of worker, the prospect of returning with substantial savings is often a cruel illusion. Between, the brokering agencies that arrange the contracts and the employers that seek to claw back their outgoings through illegal deductions, many workers, especially those who have borrowed for the privilege of working overseas, return home with nothing at all.

Problems with agency arrangements

It would be easy to blame the problem on those private sector agencies at either end of the human supply chain: those that source the jobs and those that find the workers. Certainly agencies are part of the problem but they are not the root cause of it. In many instances, there are too many licensed agencies chasing too few opportunities and the incentive to cut corners or find loopholes that will give them the edge is often paramount. It is as well to remember that these agencies are profit-driven and why should they not be? They are not regulators of the market; their primary commitment is to their shareholders or investors.

Aside from abolishing agencies altogether, which is not a practical idea since if there were no formal agency system, an informal – and unregulated – system would spring up to replace it. Rather the solution lies in controlling the number of agencies allowed to operate and to enforcing strict penalties for non-compliance. A simplification of exit procedures and paperwork would also close a number of loopholes and reduce the cost.

Beyond that, it should be possible for workers, especially those that are literate and have basic IT skills to handle much of the processing themselves without the need for agents at all. There is a nagging hunch in some quarters that governments like to keep the process complex because of the revenue that can be generated from the present system by illicit payments.

Overworked and under-resourced

Every labour attaché or welfare officer we met during this study was both overworked and under-resourced for the caseload they were tasked to handle. Often outmoded work conditions, lack of automation of office procedures and lack of a computerized database made efficient procedures impossible to introduce. We were fortunate that one labour officer was able to document this in detail for us. His case study detailing office workload and handling procedures provides invaluable insight to which many others will relate.

In many instances while the workload of labour offices has increased in recent years, resources available have remained static. In some instances, labour attachés are dependent on volunteer labour just to keep ahead.

Computerisation of records, as well as simplification of procedures and documentation appears to be matters of utmost urgency as a means of improving efficiency.

It should also be noted that in many instances, labour attachés and their staff are not autonomous units within embassies but are required to respond to the demands of other sections, especially when high-ranking officials or politicians visit the country. It appears not uncommon that in such circumstances, resources dedicated to the labour attaché’s office then become part of the pool. This especially affects the use of cars, drivers and interpreters, but attachés too can be called upon to escort visitors, putting the demands of a visitor ahead of their own workload.

In the same manner, host governments too could do much to ease the burden from their guest workers and those diplomats that work on their behalf. Simplification by host governments of procedures and a willingness to make allowances within complex, and often alien, rules and regulations would engender goodwill and reduce the burden of work. Too often, the need to follow rules and regulations conflicts with basic humanity. Because of this we hear that in some places, parking fines have to be collected from a dead body before a death certificate can be issued or, worse still, a man who hurries out without his identity card in order to collect medicines for his sick wife is arrested; his wife dies and he is ultimately beheaded for his ‘crime.’ Are actions such as these helping build a compassionate world order?

Despite the challenges, the situation is far from hopeless. Problems can be overcome, although the circumstances will not change overnight. A discussion of possible ways of moving forward in today’s complex world, many of these suggestions having been made by the labour attachés themselves, will inform the next chapter.


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