In a recent article for The New Republic, Eric A. Posner and Glen Weyl make a bold proposition about the role of migration in decreasing global inequality. Citing data that compares internal inequality with impact on global inequality between OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) and GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries, they argue that GCC countries’ open immigration laws for migrant laborers are key to increasing incomes in developing countries and therefore fighting inequality on the global scale. But they also find that the countries that contribute most to reducing global inequality are also home to vast levels of inequality internally. Posner and Weyl’s take-away: OECD countries should adopt characteristics and policies of countries like Qatar, which admits vast numbers of poor migrant workers and severely limits their rights and protections, in order to maintain economic systems that result in overall decreases in global inequality. If OECD countries really aspire to fight global inequality, they argue, they’ll have to accept dramatic levels of inequality among their citizens and “some unappealing aspects” of the labor systems in Gulf countries. In short, they’ll have to “take the good with the bad.”
While Posner and Weyl use these findings about global inequality to argue for more open immigration policies amongst wealthy Western countries, indeed a compelling concept, they are also cause for more cautious examination. The data poses some interesting questions about the complex systems of labor migration that allow Gulf countries to simultaneously profit from inequality while at the same time contribute to reducing it. Receiving countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E. occupy curious positions in the web of global migration; by employing vast populations of migrant workers while at the same time subjecting them to a number of human rights abuses, these countries appear to be both benefactors and exploiters.
Worth investigating, too, is what Posner and Weyl’s data means when it talks about reduction of global inequality. The sort of global inequality reduction to which GCC countries tend to contribute significantly is a decrease in the overall per capita wage differential between countries, resulting in higher universal equality of income between all individuals. A country like Qatar plays a role in reducing inequality by authorizing and employing large numbers of workers from poor countries. The wages these workers are paid in Qatar are so much higher than what they would make in their home country, and the numbers of workers are so high, that overall, the workers’ wage increase contributes to a significant difference in their country’s overall wages and decreased inequality between the poor country and Qatar. Although the overall trend is positive, this measurement can overlook many factors, including the fact that these wages are typically temporary and unsustainable, that migration is not an option for the most poor, and that income does not necessarily translate to accumulation of wealth. At issue, as well, is the fact that global inequality comes in many forms including access to services, education, skill level, health, and privileges that are not necessarily generated directly through higher wages. Despite this, an overall reduction in global inequality is certainly a significant trend, especially when OECD countries seem to be unable to make much of a dent at all.
The findings in Posner and Weyl’s piece combined with recent news out of Qatar makes it difficult to decide whether to congratulate or chastise the country’s government. Despite many promises of reform to the kafala system, Qatar still seems to be failing to implement changes and continues to drag its feet instead of seriously cracking down on widespread problems including unpaid wages, hazardous work conditions, abuse, and death among migrant workers. It would not benefit the plight of migrants for the government to hear positive acknowledgment that its economic system does a lot to decrease global inequality. While this fact is true, and certainly contains some lessons for immigration policy in OECD countries, the idea that the country’s treatment of migrant laborers could somehow be benevolent (even in an unintentional sense) just provides one more argument to help the Qatari government to defend its exploitative, repressive tendencies as “necessary” in order to maintain a system. Other Gulf countries like the U.A.E. have slightly better guest worker programs and might serve as better models for open immigration policies, but the situation for female domestic workers in the U.A.E. does not reflect a significantly more protected workforce.
Does overall decreased inequality balance out fatalities, injuries, and anguish of workers? Posner and Weyl acknowledge that the situation in Qatar and other Gulf countries is problematic in a human rights sense, but suggest that these are necessary evils. They refer to the exploitation of these workers as an “uncomfortable trade-off,” necessary in order to reach a greater goal of decreased inequality. After all, they argue, history shows that all massive migrations from poor to rich countries occurred in the context of extreme power imbalances. Labor migration to the Gulf is indeed an interaction of extreme proportions: extreme wealth and power of governments and employers, met by extreme poverty and powerlessness of workers in the face of the Gulf countries’ legal systems. But to assume that this power dynamic is necessary and focus on an overall positive effect on the global scale is to ignore the way receiving countries benefit from inequality and the limbo in which labor-supplying countries remain even as global inequalities wane.
At a time like this, when Qatar continues to claim benevolence toward migrants while failing to make any tangible changes to a system that offers no legal protections for foreign workers, it is convenient that its system is also reducing global inequality overall. Qatar’s migration policy and the structure of its economy were designed to best serve Qatar’s need for a huge influx of cheap migrant labor. Oil wealth, massive construction projects and an expanding demand for a service economy, amongst many other factors, fit perfectly with easy access to low-wage, low-skilled labor from countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, and India. Open labor policies make it possible to maintain a disposable, still relatively cheap workforce (drawn to the work because of the wage gap and low skill requirements) and to exploit and control that workforce. Qatar gets the best of both worlds – the cheap labor force it needs, without having to alter its society in order to accommodate new peoples or cultures.
The conclusion, then, is frustrating: simplified, it’s almost as if rich OECD countries have been working fruitlessly to find solutions to global inequality while wealthy governments in the Gulf States just happened to stumble upon an answer that’s also highly convenient and profitable for them. This is hardly the case, in part because, as Posner and Weyl acknowledge, there are limits to the West’s efforts to fight global inequality, and OECD economies certainly benefit from inequality in many ways. At the same time, the West has exerted a great deal of effort to link human rights and global development, and to argue that human rights are a building block for equality of all sorts. Countries like Qatar that benefit so greatly from inequality between their wealth and the poverty of nearby South Asian countries are the ones successfully making a dent in global inequality, without giving human rights policies a second glance.
In a way reminiscent of the love-hate relationship many migrants express with their new homes, the policies and economic systems of immigrant-receiving countries can exploit while spreading riches. They can impart new skills and income-generation to a construction worker while simultaneously subjecting him to social stigma and physical danger. They can draw a migrant with employment and provide her desperate family back home with a way to make ends meet, while exposing her to exploitation from her employer and compelling her to stay on much longer than she had planned. When anything is better than the wages and poverty at home, the wealthy destination country is both the provider and the abuser. If, as Posner and Wyle suggest, open migration policies and extreme imbalance of power between nationals and workers go hand in hand, it isn’t surprising that OECD countries haven’t gone the same way as GCC countries. With outspoken commitment to human rights issues within the global community, countries like the U.S. can’t imagine themselves applying policies similar to countries with such heinous rights abuses. Unless OECD governments can map out a way to divorce the dark side of GCC migration policies from their inequality-reducing benefits, they will likely avoid both all together.