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January 2013, Volume 20, Number 1

South Asia, Middle East

Bangladesh. Recruiters typically charge Bangladeshis going abroad to work far more than the maximum fee set by the government, which is usually 84,000 taka ($1,025). Many of the Bangladeshis interviewed in Malaysia reported paying M$13,000 ($4,250) in recruitment fees.

The Bangladeshi and Malaysian governments in Fall 2012 signed a government-to-government agreement that limits recruitment costs to 40,000 taka ($490). The plan drew sharp criticism from the 1,200-member Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (BAIRA), which says that BAIRA "developed" the Malaysian market for Bangladeshi workers. The Malaysian government stopped the recruitment of Malaysian workers in 2009 due to "irregularities" that resulted in Bangladeshis not being met at the airport by their prospective Malaysian employers.

Some 10,000 Bangladeshis are to be sent to Malaysia to work on plantations in 2013. After registering online with the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training, applicants for jobs in Malaysia will be called to one of the 13 BMET Technical Training Centers around the country to have their skills certified; those selected can receive loans from the Expatriate Welfare Bank to cover recruitment costs. Minimum wages in Malaysia are 25,000 taka ($315) a month for eight-hour day, six-days a week.

The United Arab Emirates reportedly stopped hiring Bangladeshis in August, 2012. Remittances to Bangladesh are expected to top $14 billion in 2012, up from $12 billion in 2011.

A November 24, 2012 fire killed 112 of the almost 1,200 workers in the eight-story Tazreen Fashions garment factory near Dhaka who were working overtime. Factory owners often use basements and stairwells for storage for yarn and other flammable supplies, making it difficult for workers to escape in emergencies. At Tazreen, which sewed clothing for customers that included Wal-Mart, the fire started on the ground floor, making it hard for workers on higher floors to escape.

The fire stimulated discussion of the role of Wal-Mart and other retailers in monitoring the wages and working conditions in the factories that produce the products they sell. Wal-Mart is a member of the Global Social Compliance Program, a business-led group focused on improving the supply chain, but critics say that foreign buyers demand prices so low that adherence to worker safety standards is compromised.

Factory owners believe that the top priority of buyers is low prices, while buyers say that governments should set and enforce safety standards. In a country such as Bangladesh, where sewing offers easy-entry formal sector jobs, the government has been reluctant to set standards that add to factory owners' costs for fear that the number of jobs may diminish.

The Bangladeshi government faces many numbers and rights trade offs, in sending workers abroad and ensuring safe working conditions at home. With the press of 160 million people in a country the size of Iowa, the government has frequently chosen numbers, meaning more migrants abroad or more sewing jobs at home, over rights for migrants abroad and sewing workers at home.

Some 4,500 garment factories employ over three million mostly young women in Bangladesh, and clothing exports worth $18 billion in 2011-12 were three-fourths of the country's manufacturing exports; $1 billion of these exports went to Wal-Mart. The government in 2010 raised the minimum wage to $38 a month, but some workers are demanding higher wages to cope with the rising cost of living.

Bangladesh is poor, but its life expectancy is longer than that in India, which is at least twice as rich in per capita income. Four factors are often cited for Bangladesh's ability to improve the quality of life despite relatively slow economic growth: declining fertility, now about 2.3 children per woman; the green revolution that allowed farmers to produce two and sometimes three rice crops a year; Bangladeshis who went abroad to work sent $13 billion in remittances in 2012; and the micro-credit industry made funds available to the poor.

India. Interviews with Indians returning from the UAE in January 2013 during one of the periodic UAE amnesties, which allow illegal workers to return without paying fines, found that most of the illegal Indians went to the UAE with contracts, but were not paid promised wages. A worker promised 800 dirhams a month earned 350, so he quit the job and worked as a day laborer for 50 dirhams a day.

There are an estimated 50,000 unauthorized Indians among the 1.8 million Indians in the UAE. Kerala, which has a so-called "money order economy" based on remittances, is paying for one-way tickets home for unauthorized workers from the state, but Andhra Pradesh is not.

There are almost three million Kerala residents in the Gulf oil-exporting countries, but fewer are leaving because the demand for labor in the Gulf is shifting toward skilled labor. Filipinos who speak English are often preferred to Indians who do not in service jobs.

The Indian government is beginning to deposit pension and other payments for poor residents directly into their bank accounts to prevent corrupt state and local officials from stealing the money. India's cash-payment-for-the-poor program is based on those in Mexico and Brazil that make cash payments to poor families if their children satisfy social goals such as keeping children in school and ensuring that they have regular health check-ups.

India spends about $14 billion a year to provide subsidized food and fuel via 50,000 government shops that are prone to corruption. The government-shop system is continuing, in part because women typically receive subsidized food while men receive the cash payments.

India is rolling out a 12-digit ID system, and has after three years taken retinal and fingerprint scans from 220 million residents. A third of Indian households have bank accounts, and development experts hope that government payments and secure IDs will increase the number of Indian households that can access the financial system.

Sri Lanka. The Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare Ministry in fall 2012 announced that MOUs had been signed with countries including Azerbaijan, China, Italy, Mauritius, and the Seychelles to send Sri Lankan workers to these countries to fill industrial and domestic jobs. About 80 percent of the estimated 1.7 million Sri Lankan migrant workers are in the Middle East, usually Gulf oil exporters.

In 2011, over 41 percent of the 263,000 Sri Lankan workers who went abroad were female domestic helpers. Of the 188,000 who went abroad in the first 10 months of 2012, 46 percent were female domestic helpers. Beginning in 2010, men outnumbered women going abroad, and the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment expects this trend of more male and more skilled workers going abroad to continue.

The chair of the SLBFE, Amal Senalankadikara, said on January 2, 2013: "We do not approve females going for overseas work as domestic aides. However, we cannot put a full stop to it immediately. Therefore, we have launched a number of programs to upgrade their skills and find more gainful employment in specialized vocations" for women.

Remittances in 2012 are expected to top $6 billion, representing almost 10 percent of Sri Lankan GDP.

Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has about 27 million residents, including a third who are foreigners. The Saudi government has been in the forefront of efforts by Gulf oil exporters to reduce the employment of migrant workers via Saudization or the Nitaqat program that bans foreigners from certain jobs. About 35 percent of those in the Saudi labor force were Saudi in 2012.

Beginning November 15, 2012, private firms must pay a fee of SAR 2,400 ($640) for every migrant they employ who is not matched by a Saudi employee who earns at least SR 3,000 ($800) a month; foreigners from other Gulf Cooperation Council countries and domestic helpers are excluded. Private firms with less than 10 employees are barred from hiring migrants.

The Saudi Labor Ministry in Fall 2012 rejected proposals for a national minimum wage, pointing out that it would be hard to administer a separate minimum wage for Saudis and foreigners and that setting a minimum wage to attract Saudis into private sector jobs would double or triple labor costs. Instead, the Ministry announced a National Observatory of the Workforce to collect labor market statistics on job vacancies and Saudis seeking jobs, a so-called "virtual labor market."

The construction industry noted that 90 percent of its one million employees are migrants. Many contractors agreed to fixed-price bids without knowing that they would have to pay fees for not having a 50-50 balance of migrants and Saudis.

UAE. Abu Dhabi, the fastest growing of the seven emirates, had 2.1 million residents in 2012, up from 212,000 in 1975. About 80 percent of Abu Dhabi's residents are foreigners. About 70 percent of Abu Dhabi residents are male.

Ethiopia in July 2012 banned domestic workers from going to the UAE after an Ethiopian was burned over 80 percent of her body in a gas explosion in Dubai. There are an estimated 100,000 Ethiopians in the UAE, and the Ethiopian government is trying to negotiate a labor agreement with UAE to improve protections. Some complain that Ethiopians are more likely than other nationalities to commit crimes and run away from their employers.

The Ethiopian ban has increased the fees charged by recruitment agencies, from 5,000 dirhams ($1,360) in 2011 to 10,000 dirhams ($2,720) in 2013. Many of the domestic helpers work in the homes of the foreign professionals who operate the UAE's economy.

Israel. Some of the Africans seeking to enter Israel are being assaulted and killed by criminal gangs in Egypt's Sinai Desert. Many migrants crossing the Sinai are from Eritrea and Sudan, and most pay $1,000 to $2,000 to smugglers to get them into Israel. Some say they were kidnapped by the Rashaida tribe in Eritrea and Sudan and forced to migrate.

The Egyptian-Israeli border is a no-man's land. If migrants are apprehended in Israel, they are detained as infiltrators. If apprehended in Egypt, they are detained as illegal migrants.

Some 60,000 Africans arrived in Israel between 2005 and 2012. Most settled in low-income neighborhoods of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, prompting local residents to protest. The Israeli government built a 15-foot high fence on its Sinai border with Egypt and approved a law that allows "infiltrators" to be detained for up to three years. After June 2012, the number of illegal migrants detected by Israeli border guards fell sharply, to less than 50 a month. Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) has been one of the most vocal opponents of African migrants.

Israel admitted 80,200 migrant workers in 2012, and apprehended 10,365 unauthorized migrants, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, at its borders. The three leading sectors of employment of legal migrant workers in 2012 were in-home care, agriculture and construction.

Syria. The Syrian government, like many other Middle Eastern governments, requires foreign workers to have a letter from their employers allowing them to leave the country. Many of the employers of foreign workers have left Syria, but the government nonetheless requires letters to allow migrants to depart.

Indonesia in January 2013 announced plans to send a team of 60 to Syria to help up to 7,000 Indonesians who no longer have employers but cannot leave the country.