A UAE Style Guest-Worker Programme Is The Least We Should Do To Help The World’s Poor

by Thomas Wells

Billions of people around the world continue to live in great poverty. What is the responsibility of rich countries to address this?

This essay takes the view that the best we can do is the least we ought to do, but also that the best we can do is heavily constrained by political feasibility as well as logistics. In a democracy the best we can do is what the majority are willing to go along with, and this is something quite different from what purely moral arguments would suggest. For example, rich countries could increase aid programmes from their current pitiful level of $160 billion (less than 0.2% of global GDP). However this would be unpopular since that money could have been spent on more nice things for their own citizens, and lots of rich country governments are already worrying about how to raise the taxes to pay off their Covid debts. Hence that idea fails the political feasibility test. For another example, rich countries could reduce their trade barriers so that poorer countries can access more economic opportunities. Since trade benefits all parties (by definition) this would be a net benefit to rich countries and so it should be politically feasible even though industries threatened with competition would complain. However, rich countries already have very low or zero tariffs on almost everything that is easy to send around the world, so the impact of further liberalisation would be rather tiny.

But there is something else quite obvious that rich countries could do which would have a dramatic impact on global poverty while also having the political advantage of making rich countries even richer. Globalisation has achieved the (more or less) free movement of goods and capital between countries and this has made the world much richer. But people are mostly still stuck behind political borders. Why shouldn’t labour also be allowed to move to wherever it can earn the best price, i.e. to wherever it can be most productive? This would allow rich countries to get cheap low-skilled labour (e.g. to pick our asparagus and care for our old people) while poor people would get access to higher productivity working environments (and hence higher pay) than they could find in their home countries. According to a 2005 calculation by the World Bank, if rich countries globally used migrants to expand their labour force by just 3% this would generate $300 billion in gains for the migrants’ countries (via remittances) and would also save the rich countries more than $50 billion. In other words, rich countries would get even richer while doing far more good for the world than anything else they could try!

The obvious problem with this apparent win-win is that migration is a toxic issue in most rich countries, especially economic migration by low skilled workers. Conservatives worry that the arrival of lots of foreigners will change our way of life without our consent. Leftists also worry – though less openly – about the impact on social insurance systems. We have built beautiful welfare systems at great effort, but their level of pay outs depend upon the average productivity of those paying in, which will naturally fall with the arrival of large numbers of low-skilled workers. If rich countries settled for a 3% programme then neither these objections would be decisive. However, that would mean settling for considerably less than could be realistically achieved. Therefore I suggest a more radical plan. Rich countries should set up guest-worker programmes modelled on the UAE’s: strictly temporary work visas with limited legal rights and no path to citizenship. For example, a strict maximum of 5 years total, conditional on employment; no right to bring family; no settlement rights (e.g. can’t marry a citizen); and civil rights but not political or social rights (i.e. property & contract rights, but no voting or access to the welfare system).

The point of such restrictions is to overcome the strong popular objections to large scale economic migration by restricting it as far as possible to a purely economic transaction. It is an unfortunate political fact that although many people in rich countries agree that the global poor should be helped somehow, very few are willing to give up anything much to achieve that. It would be nice if that wasn’t the case and we could all recognise the full dignity of human beings no matter their nationality. But we don’t live in that world and we should stop pretending that we do. (That is how we got democracies signing treaties promising to protect refugees while also using their navies to turn away their boats.) Ruthlessly enforced strict guest worker programmes would treat non-citizen residents in a systematically inferior way to regular citizens, and so they should satisfy our political prejudices. But they would also do an enormous amount of good by allowing hundreds of millions of the global poor to access life-changing economic opportunities. (Similar programmes allow the sparsely populated Gulf states to host 25 million guest workers.)

At this point some readers may want to raise additional moral objections.

Is there not something odious (even ‘apartheidist’) about treating migrants so much worse than our own nationals?

Yes, it does seem icky. But do remember that this is no different from how we normally treat those people. We don’t care about an Indian peasant’s pension rights when they are living in the countryside in Kerala, so it seems arbitrary to suddenly start caring just because they happen to be living in our country now. It seems especially strange to use this feeling as a justification for preventing such a person from getting a job that will considerably change their life-prospects and ability to support their family.

Wouldn’t this make lots of our people unemployable?

Yes, our own low-skilled workers would have to compete with those from poorer countries willing to work for much less. One way or another they would have to find something else to do (such as supervising guest workers). Fortunately for them, they would retain access to the welfare system and fortunately for the rest of us that is a much cheaper way of ensuring their well-being than building a wall to keep foreigners from doing work we need done.

Isn’t this just exploitation of poverty?

Yes, I am saying that rich countries should exploit the willingness of people from poor countries to work for lower wages because they don’t have any better options. However, the structure of this is a mutually beneficial transaction between consenting adults. Moreover it can only succeed if these would-be migrants see it as their best option, so even if you think this kind of exploitation is morally wrong,  stopping it would make them worse off.

What about the potential for abuse?

Journalists have uncovered many accounts of unsafe working conditions and predatory behaviour towards guest workers (such as extorting unpaid work) in Gulf states. However, these don’t seem to be a necessary feature of guest-worker programmes but an outcome of how they are set up and regulated, and particularly the power asymmetry in the relationship between employer and worker. Governments can act to protect guest-workers’ rights against predatory employers if they want to, just as they can protect regular workers’ rights. The UAE, for example, has recently tightened its laws and enforcement to prevent employers confiscating passports and similar bad behaviour while also making it easier for workers to switch employers without losing their visa. Governments on the other end of guest-worker agreements, such as the Philippines, have also become much more proactive in regulating recruitment practises.


To sum up, the case for guest-worker programmes is that it would do an awful lot of good for people who need it while also advancing rich countries’ own immediate interests. It thereby allows us to fulfil a vaunted cosmopolitan moral principle while still prioritising the nationalist ‘my people first’ concerns demanded by democratic politics. It is the best we can realistically do to help the global poor and that makes it the least we should do.


Further reading: Lant Pritchett. 2006. Let Their People Come: Breaking the Gridlock on International Labor Mobility. Center for Global Development ; Brookings Institution Press.

Image credit: “Competitive Remittance Market in Nepal” by USAID Digital Development is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0