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9 June 2003updated 24 Sep 2015 12:01pm

Far from home, they toil to buy a fridge for Mama

For some countries, the money sent home by migrants comes to as much as a quarter of national income

By Jeremy Seabrook

Every year, about 200 million people move in search of employment – about 3 per cent of the world’s people. The majority are internal migrants, many of whom return home. In China alone, it is estimated that more than 100 million people have left the countryside to work in the cities. Of the approximately 175 million people who live outside their country of birth, about 120 million are migrants.

Legal migrants, who leave their homes in poor countries to provide labour in other parts of the world, are generally regarded as privileged. The money they earn supports whole families, even villages. So great is the prize that people will pay agents and middlemen their life savings to reach countries where their labour may be adequately rewarded. Families sell land, take other children out of school and sell wedding jewellery to ensure the passage to prosperity of one favoured member.

Maidservants from the Philippines and Indonesia in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia; construction workers and labourers from Bangladesh, India and Indonesia in Taiwan and the Gulf; plantation workers in Malaysia; restaurant staff all over the world; Thais and Filipinas who have gone as sex-workers, escorts and lap-dancers to Japan, Europe and the US; nurses from the Caribbean, West Africa and the Philippines in first world countries; young men from villages all over southern Asia absorbed by the have-a-nice-day culture of the fast-food industry.

These are just a few of the displaced in the global economy, which scoops up labour as easily as potatoes or apples, and whisks it round the world at the convenience of capital. In some parts of the world – Gambia, for instance – migrants make up one-third of the population. Remittances from the 25 per cent of the migrant population of Cote d’Ivoire make up one-quarter of the GDP of Burkina Faso. These are only the most conspicuous of the globally transplanted. In some countries, whole villages are semi-deserted, or “communities of widows”; in others, Korat in northern Thailand, or Fujian Province in China, only the elderly and the very young remain.

Official figures suggest that Bangladesh depends upon migrants for $2bn a year, the Philippines $3bn, Sri Lanka $1bn, Indonesia $1bn, Egypt $3.7bn, and India more than $11bn. These sums are a significant underestimate. The Central Bank of the Philippines registers more than twice the amount of World Bank estimates.

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Remittances constitute 24 per cent of the export of goods and services from Egypt, 18 per cent from India, and 14 per cent from the Philippines. Migrants from Latin America to the US send home $18bn a year; remittances make up 14 per cent of the GDP of El Salvador. In Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cape Verde, Jamaica, Jordan, Nicaragua, Yemen and Samoa, remittances account for more than 10 per cent of GDP.

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Money sent home from the low-paid maidservants, sweepers and waiters maintains the family and allows modest improvements to the home or living conditions – a tin-set house and a tiled roof, a suite of chairs, a TV, a debt to moneylenders paid off, the money for a dowry, an education, even to buy a little more land.

But those who are well paid and now live in rich countries invest the money in conspicuous consumption. The airports of Trivandrum, Manila and Dhaka are always full of waiting relatives peering through the lines of fridges, microwaves and TV sets in search of their loved ones now wearing unfamiliar clothing befitting successful returnees. Many invest in ostentatious homes, marble, stone and ceramic villas with swimming pools and ornamental railings, mansions wafted as if by magic from the Bishop’s Avenue or South Carolina like extraterrestrial craft set down in the countryside of Sylhet, Kerala and Sumatra, with chiming doorbells, winking lights, artificial trees and security personnel in a sentry box at the compound gate.

This distorts the local society: the successful serve as emissaries of the better life, disturbing the usual patterns of live-lihood, demonstrating the priority of luxury over the necessities of life.

Much of the money goes on imported goods: the china toilet bowl and electrical appliances that sometimes arrive before the electricity to run them. This does not create permanent work, and the money is not used for social improvement: it stands as a monument to the social standing of individuals, the Londonis and others back from the lands of plenty, with their superior manners, their familiarity with the world, their exhibitionism.

There is good reason for their showiness. For all migrant workers have paid a high price for having been summoned by wealth to cross the globe. Any boastfulness is but a small recovery of the losses they have incurred.

The status of the migrant in the places where they laboured was low: they were despised. Working as they did, in jobs that local people consider inferior, they have been exploited and overworked, not infrequently beaten and abused, sexually used and semi-enslaved. They have lived in barracks and dormitories on sites in Jeddah and Kuala Lumpur; in attics in Paris and Frankfurt; in the gilded cells of massage parlours in Yokohama and New York; in cold damp rooms stuffed with paper to keep out the draughts of north London. They have shared beds with strangers on 12-hour shifts, slept on floors and in corridors of restaurants all over the world.

They have learnt how to survive while spending no money on themselves, walking to work, making one cigarette last all day, in canvas shoes and plastic coats, wearing frayed trousers and darning their socks beneath a dim light bulb in an unheated room. The money sent home has been won at the cost of isolation and self-denial, of which those for whose sake it has been suffered in silence know nothing.

The only consolation for the returnees is the pride of survival and the stories of the wonders they have seen: little will be told of the privations endured in hot kitchens and cold garrets, a life shared with rats and roaches. The superiority of the travelled will be on display, the widened horizons and the wisdom which set them apart from the wondering people who remain on the land, feet in water, back sunburnt.

There is another cost borne by the beneficiaries of the global demand for labour. This is the immeasurable pain of separation: the children growing up without a father or deprived of a mother, who receive pictures of an immaculate capital city of skyscrapers and palm trees, and the money that can never compensate for their absence. What of the spouses grown tired of waiting for those grown older in the service of money; the women who abandon their children, the men who take a second or third wife into the empty village home?

What do they feel, the children of the dancer in the Tokyo club, the daughter of the driver in Bahrain, the child of the factory worker from Fuzhou? What are the long-term effects of an economic necessity that corrodes relationships and eats into belonging? Can the softness of flesh be mitigated by the hardness of currency? How are the missing tenderness and unfelt touch of loving hands to be made up for, other than by the Barbie doll and the PlayStation, the Walkman and the electronic game? What social and psychological consequences await a generation passed between indifferent aunties and enfeebled grandmothers, waiting endlessly for the return that is postponed by another year, and then another, just long enough to save up for the good life, which nevertheless remains always just out of reach?

There are an estimated ten million migrant workers in the Middle East alone; more than three million Indians in the oil-exporting countries of the Gulf. No doubt the war in Iraq will disrupt the labour of some of them; but imagine the opportunities when the contracts for construction are placed, the reshaped skyline of Baghdad, the fast-food outlets and hotels for the occupying power. The services indispensable to their comfort will summon forth tens of thousands more from the desolate villages and the cheated countryside of rural poverty.

All this will show up solely as gain in the economic calculus; while the forfeits and penalties paid by the uprooted workers’ whole world will go uncounted in the cooked books of global capital.