South Asian migration to the Middle East has two very different faces. At one end of the social and economic spectrum are the urban, middle class, well educated, highly skilled professionals whose position reflects the recent economic growth and importance of India and other parts of the region. At the other end of the spectrum are those who find work in low status, low paid occupations, such as construction and domestic work (as maids), who have little protection under the labour laws of the countries they work in. The vast majority of South Asian migrants to the Middle East fall into the latter category.
When the oil prices increased dramatically in the early 1970s, the oil-rich countries in the Middle East sought to develop their infrastructure such as roads, bridges and buildings in a relatively short period of time. This created a huge demand for labour in the oil and construction sectors, and the rising standards of living for citizens of Middle Eastern countries created a demand for domestic workers in the home. Foreign labour was central to their development strategy and by the beginning of the 21st century there were more foreign workers than local employees in many of these countries
By 1999, the number of foreign workers in the Gulf states totalled 7.1 million, representing almost 70% of the total workforce in these countries (The Middle East Institute, 2010). In 2000, the percentage of foreign workers in the labour force was 80% in United Arab Emirates, 64% in Bahrain and 82% in Kuwait. It is estimated that almost 50% of the population of UAE comprises of South Asians, almost all of whom are non-nationals.
Pakistan has long historic ties with the Middle Eastern region, and Pakistani residents in the countries of the Middle East and Libya make up a significant percentage of the total Pakistani diaspora in the world. Pakistani workers in these countries are primarily men who comprise both professionals who work in the banking, engineering, and petroleum sectors, as well as ‘semi-skilled workers’ a category which include self employed taxi drivers. There are also unskilled manual workers who are employed in the construction industry.
There are also significant numbers of migrants from India working in the Middle East. These include professionals who work as engineers, doctors, lawyers, and in the financial sector, but by far the majority are unskilled manual construction workers, primarily men. The southern Indian state of Kerala is the primary source of emigration of Indian workers to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar. In 2008, the largest proportion of emigrants from Kerala - about 89% - went to the Middle East and remittances are a key source of income for Kerala's economy (Zachariah and Rajan, 2004).
It is estimated that in 2009 there were roughly 1.7 million Sri Lankan citizens employed overseas, of whom 86% went to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Lebanon, U.A.E. and Jordan (IPSSL, 2013). The biggest category of Sri Lankans in the Middle East comprise of domestic workers who make up more than a third of migrant workers originating in Sri Lanka. Domestic workers in the Gulf countries are primarily women from countries in Asia and Africa including the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Nepal and increasing numbers from Ethiopia and countries in East Africa. The remittances sent back by these workers are a crucial means of survival for their families and an important source of revenue for their country. However, organisations working with migrant domestic workers have documented high levels of exploitation and abuse of these workers.
Migrant domestic workers receive little protection from the government and employment remains highly unregulated in the countries of the Middle East. These migrant workers face restrictions on the length of stay, strict regulations about changing jobs, have no rights of permanent settlement and are often tied to their employer through the sponsorship system. In 2013, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) urged countries to adopt new standards to ensure decent working conditions and pay for the world's 53 million domestic workers – mainly women.