International laborers

I am in Dubai airport, waiting to catch a plane en route from Kabul to Kathmandu. Dubai airport was built and is serviced by foreigners. All of the hubs in this sheikhy region are. I’ve seen most of them. They all look more or less the same-and surely the people who work in them. Poor Nepali, Indians or Bangladeshi clean the toilets and the public areas. Philippinos, or others who happen to speak somewhat better English that the others, run the shops and eateries. Africans are making inroads into this job market as well. The fanciest jobs – airline staff, for example – are reserved for pretty ladies from all over the world, just like anywhere in the world. Asian or Eurasian, it doesn’t matter: a stewardess has to be pretty, smile and look smart. The diversity of stewardesses matches the diversity of travelers. Wherever they are in the pecking order, they’re international laborers. Just like most people who are transiting through here.

The South Asian laborers working outside, trying to fix who knows what under the hot desert sun, sip from their bottle of water as they take a rest. The Russian, British and Singaporean stewardesses at the table next to mine sip Costa coffee, just like me. [I am actually not sure about the last girl’s nationality but she sure looks like the ‘Singaporean girl’ of the publicity.] We are lucky.

Am I an international laborer? My consultancy job in Afghanistan pays more than what I could earn in my home country with my experience and degrees. I chose to go abroad. So… No. I am not an international laborer. But then people servicing this airport-including the pretty stewardesses over there-think they made a choice as well, don’t they? [Did I choose to go abroad? Perhaps not-but that’s another story: I am where I am and I am happy with that. It’s no use complaining anyway, is it? In fact, when I see a pretty stewardess, I always think about that Belgian ambassador who married one. Both of them were lucky people (she was beautiful and he was rich and powerful), but they never seemed to be happy together, and so I always wondered why they chose to be together.]

In any case, let’s go back to the stewardesses and me. How are we different? Job-wise that is. Both our salaries are determined not in national labor markets but by global demand and supply: Dubai has to keep up with Doha, or vice versa, or with Brussels or London, and USAID-approved salary scales in Kabul can’t be too out of whack with USAID’s in Baghdad. So are we a global commodity?

If we are, then we’re obviously less of a commodity than the South Asian crew outside, digging up God knows what. They really are a commodity, I would think. They’re probably as bad off as the Belgian laborers, whose sight led Marx to re-write the theory of capitalism at the end of the 19th century. Perhaps they’re even worse off. Surely if they’d be working on some sheikhy construction yard outside of the airport. It was on the news that, in the past year, since construction started for the UEFA Cup in Qatar, a few thousand Indian, Nepali and Bangladeshi construction workers have died there from ‘accidents’ building stadiums and other infrastructure. Let’s try to put that number in perspective.

As a percentage of the trade in ‘voluntary slaves’, it may not be an awful lot. Probably about the same percentage of the US and other foreign soldiers – as part of the total presence – who died on Afghan soil for a cause that no one really understands. [As for the term ‘voluntary slaves’, I don’t have a better one. What else should we call them? Upon arrival, their passport is taken away, and they can’t switch employers, even if they’re not being paid. That qualifies as ‘slave’, I think.] In comparison to the number who dies from heart attack in an average European country, a few thousand is also a rather relative number. And madmen machine-gunning innocent men, women and children in a US school or shopping mall kill as much, it seems. Conflicts or natural disasters also easily claim a few thousand victims. So what’s a few thousand?

I think the number is an indicator of the state of our over-populated world, and it’s a horrendous statistic, just as horrendous as the number of women who end up as sex slaves, or the children that get sold, in the poorest of the poor countries, to pay off a debt, or because the parents can’t afford to feed them. Trafficking in human beings – national and international – is a gray zone, but there’s gray that’s almost black, as opposed to gray that’s close to white. Those Nepali workers dying in ‘accidents’ in Qatar surely qualify for the very dark grey zone as far as I am concerned.

But let me go back to where I am – Dubai airport – and the human beings who are working here, i.e. the men and women I can see as I am typing these words: the lady serving Costa coffee, the stewardesses chatting away, and those poor guys working just next to the runway, trying to fix who knows what under the hot desert sun scorching the earth.

A benign view is that this ‘recycling’ – direct or indirect – of petrodollars serves at least two purposes. First, infrastructure gets built in what would, otherwise, just be desert, worth only as much as the market price of the oil beneath it. We can’t blame the sheikh countries to try to diversify their economy, can we? The second argument is also economic: labor has become an internationally tradable community, and the theory of comparative advantages tells us the world should indeed take advantage of that, because – when you add everything up – taking advantage of it will increase the world’s GDP more than when not taking advantage of it. An even more fundamental argument, perhaps, is that if sheikh A doesn’t take advantage of it, sheikh B and C will, and so then we have unfair competition, and that’s, surely, a no-no for any economist, isn’t it?

Perhaps. That all makes sense. I actually am an economist. However, I can’t think of many countries that have become rich by exporting their labor. None actually, including mine: Belgium’s brainy people work abroad, like me. So if a country suffers from exporting its labor (usually the best and brightest leave indeed), there might be some conflict between national and global interest here. That’s one. [Strangely enough, I find myself saying here something that Comrade Prachanda in Nepal regularly says in his speeches. So I am not in good company.]

My second point is more subtle. I’ve detailed the micro- or meso-economic logic behind the gross macro-economic simplifications underlying the comparative advantages theory in one of my other posts, and it’s a mixed story. When you walk about a bit in the Himalayan mountains, you see entire villages becoming dependent on remittances, with grandparents taking care of children, and no one taking care of the fields. The parents that should care about the kids and/or the fields are all gone: they work in Kathmandu or abroad. Comparative advantages: cheap labor goes where it’s better paid-or where it’s being paid at all. And then those fields don’t matter anymore: the remittances pay for cheap food stuff coming along the new bulldozer road that some crazy politician ordered built – often at the cost of great environmental degradation – to win a few more votes and, hence, why should we care about those unproductive fields? The road changes comparative and, in this case, even absolute advantage: growing your own barley in the high mountains instead of buying cheap rice from the over-populated Terai plains is stupid, isn’t? And then those parents are not there to raise their kids, but then they can pay for boarding school in Kathmandu as soon as they’re like ten or twelve years old. Indeed, there are not many teenagers in those villagers either: just old people and small kids.

You’ll say I sound like one of those old people. Well… 45 years is a pretty decent age in Nepal and so I should probably admit that I actually am an old man, still struggling to come to terms with a ‘revolution’ that started some 300 years ago. Indeed, the communications revolution that helped triggered the industrial revolution – railways and steam ships connecting huge factories with markets across the world – is still unfolding. It’s also spreading production and, hence, wealth. You may look at your iPhone as a product ‘made in USA’, but it actually comes from everywhere and nowhere. It’s a ‘world product’, literally: it was designed where it’s cheapest to do design (the US is still awesome for that), its components were built where it’s cheapest to build them (China), and it was assembled where it was cheapest to do so (China and Taiwan). It’s also stocked everywhere and nowhere really. Wherever it’s cheapest.

So why am I complaining? Frankly, I don’t know. We’re all part of what’s going on. I should kneel and thank God I am not one of those South Asians digging outside. The War in Afghanistan was – and still is – crazy but I cannot, and will not, complain about it because it pays my bills as a development consultant. In fact, if I should say anything at all about my job, I should only note that guys like me are increasingly following the mess: South Sudan, Syria, and now Iraq once again… I am at the forefront of globalization really.

Indeed, we’re not doing any development there. We’re just following the money. Aid agencies are now all formally or de facto extensions of their political counterpart: the State Department, or the Foreign Office, or le Ministère des Affaires Etrangères. The communications revolution has also shortened planning and implementation horizons: money gets re-directed – in a matter of months, or even weeks – to wherever there’s a ‘problem’ that needs ‘fixing’. There’s no sequencing anymore: war; humanitarian aid; negotiation, reconciliation and peace-building; reconstruction; development; whatever-all needs to happen simultaneously. Why? Because we can. In our globalized world, we can be everywhere and we can do everything.

Can we? No. Of course the international community is now in a position to re-direct billions of dollars to wherever the international media directs its gaze, but one can’t fight and reconstruct simultaneously. Worse, pouring in resources while the conflict is still raging usually worsens the fight-because now there’s even more to fight for: international resources (not only money but also international credibility or other assets-civilian or military). So we come and meddle with good intentions, but the first impact is usually negative: we deepen the conflict.

Obama is right to look inwards again: he needs to fix the problems of Americans first. The rest of the world used to take care of itself, until the myth of ‘The White Man’s Burden’ made the white men think they had a moral responsibility to do so. I am one of those white men. My problem is that I don’t feel any moral responsibility anymore. I am just doing a job for which there’s demand, and for which I’m qualified and smart enough apparently. Just like the stewardesses. A job in an inter-connected world. So I am an international laborer too. I feel for those guys outside. When everything is said and done, I actually am one of them. What could I do to help them?