On 3 February, over 1,000 people died when a passenger ferry travelling from the Saudi Arabian town of Dubah to the Egyptian port of Safaga sank off the Red Sea coast.
While the disaster served to highlight the shaky state of Egyptian transport infrastructure, it also showed the plight of Egypt’s economic migrants, who comprised the majority of passengers on the vessel.
“Many of them would have had all their savings in their pockets,” said Ray Juraidini, an expert on economic migration at the American University in Cairo, of the passengers aboard the Al-Salam Boccaccio 98 passenger ferry. Most were poor Egyptians [from all over Egypt] returning from the rich labour markets of the Gulf, where they had sought better job prospects than those available at home.
As well as tourism, Suez Canal receipts and petroleum, the expatriate Egyptian workforce represents a key source of foreign currency in Egypt, with remittances from abroad estimated at about three percent of national GDP.
According to data from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), there are currently over 2 million Egyptians working abroad. While the majority are in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, there are also considerable numbers in Jordan and Lebanon, as well as in Europe.
The phenomenon has given rise to numerous reports of abuses and exploitation. “Migrants, including large numbers of women employed as domestic servants, face intimidation and violence at the hands of employers, supervisors, sponsors and police,” according to US-based international watchdog, Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“Intimidated by violence, or the threat of it, workers are often afraid to demand unpaid wages, protest poor conditions or seek legal recourse for abuses.”
Juraidini noted that migrant workers “don’t have much power, and countries like Saudi Arabia haven’t signed the major UN convention on the protection of rights of migrant workers and their families”. Because of this, he added, they are generally “not allowed to join or form unions” to demand better working conditions.
Employers often hold the passports of foreign workers to restrict their movements, he added.
Despite ample evidence from rights groups that such practices are common however, many Egyptians still jump at the chance to work in the Gulf, particularly in Saudi Arabia. Official unemployment in Egypt stands at 12 percent, although the real figure is generally thought to be much higher.
With some 700,000 fresh graduates entering the local job market every year, desperation pushes people abroad. “You can’t view the labour migration issue as separate from the unemployment issue,” noted Ibrahim Awad, director of the ILO’s international migration programme.
Currently, an estimated 10 million foreigners, most of them unskilled and semi-skilled migrants, work in the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
According to HRW, more than half of these – some 5.5 million – are employed in Saudi Arabia, where foreigners comprise one-third of the population. Migrant workers in Gulf countries usually operate under a “sponsorship” system, in which local employers offer temporary contracts to foreign workers of whom they are custodians, allowing them to obtain residency permits.
“Many people want to work in the Gulf, but they don’t know what they’ll face," said Ali Abdel-Rahim, 29, from the city of Assiut in southern Egypt. Abdel-Rahim speaks from experience: he recently returned from two-and-a-half years in Saudi Arabia, where he worked as a painter.
He said he was subject to harsh living and working conditions, as well as occasional ill-treatment. “We lived in very poor conditions, working 12 hours a day, six days a week,” he said, describing the painting jobs he performed as “dirty, dangerous and difficult”.
Abdel-Rahim, who lived in cramped conditions with seven other migrant workers, said that his sponsor simply pocketed the first two months of his salary, along with 25 percent of all his subsequent earnings.
Despite these setbacks, however, he managed to send money back to his family every few months. When he had saved up about US $300, he returned to Cairo to open a painting business of his own.
Economic migration from Egypt doesn’t only include unskilled and semi-skilled labour. Many Egyptian professionals such as teachers, doctors and engineers also travel to the Gulf to work for higher salaries than those available domestically.
Ahmed Abdel-Khalek, 39, is a second-generation immigrant to the Gulf, born in Saudi Arabia when his father was working there in the 1960s. He returned three years ago to work as a doctor, where he, too, was subject to the sponsorship system. After only three months he returned to Egypt in disgust, complaining of disrespectful treatment by his employers and a lack of opportunities for career advancement.
“The salary is much better in Saudi, but there’s no scientific progress,” he said. “It’s better for your career here.”
Juraidini noted: “Even professionals have restrictions, and many people quite resent it.”
Human rights organisations have consistently urged host nations to honour the rights of the foreign labourers they depend on. “Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states have a special responsibility to participate in all international efforts to guarantee rights and justice for this vulnerable population,” HRW noted.
“Becoming parties to the migrant rights convention will signal the GCC’s willingness to help address a serious worldwide problem,” it added.