Pakistani Workers' Land Of Opportunity: Afghanistan?

May 18, 2011

Quil Lawrence

Shah Marai
A Pakistani worker labors on a machine in a factory in Kabul, producing boots for the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army. Higher wages and, in some cases, better security in Afghanistan have drawn workers from Pakistan.

It's not unusual for laborers the world over to cross borders, sometimes illegally, to find a safer environment and better wages. But it is strange when their land of opportunity is Afghanistan.

It may be a sign of economic and political instability in neighboring Pakistan that manual laborers are sneaking across into Afghanistan, where wages are double and, in some cases, security is better.

That level of desperation has many fearing that Pakistan may be holding on to stability just as tenuously as Afghanistan.

Day Laborers

Afghanistan's capital city, Kabul, is growing faster than the government can measure — mostly in the form of big concrete and brick buildings. But an increasing number of the laborers on the buildings aren't from there.

Enya Atullah, an Afghan working on the precarious fourth floor of a new building, says he knows Pakistani day laborers will do his job for less.

They've ruined our work, Atullah says in Pashto. He says he doesn't make enough because he has to compete with Pakistani laborers, and he hopes the government will come up with a policy to stop them from coming into the country.

An official from the Afghan Ministry of Labor said he had no idea how many Pakstanis are working in the country illegally, and he frankly admitted that the government has almost no control over individuals who cross the border. Most of them are Pashtuns, and they have ethnic and family ties that straddle the frontier.

Of course, Afghan contractors don't mind the migrants, according to one businessman who gave his name only as Amin. Pakistani laborers will work day or night for about half the price of Afghans.

"Pakistani people [are] taking less money than Afghan people," Amin says. "In this case, everybody [chooses] the Pakistani workers, and also maybe they are working during night. All the time, if you are paying money, they are working."

Amin admits to some smugness that Afghanistan, which saw millions of refugees flee to Pakistan during the 1980s, is now in a more advantageous position. It's not so satisfying on the other side.

Uncertainty In Pakistan

It's bad at home, says Azizullha, who uses only one name. He's from Bajur, one of Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal areas on the Afghan border. He's been working as a mason in Afghanistan for about three months.

Things are so bad in Pakistan, Azizullha says, that if you get out of the city, there is fear of kidnapping, security is bad and, of course, there are no jobs.

Azizullah says there were foreigners in his home village — by which he probably means al-Qaida and Taliban fighters who cross the border into the Afghan province of Kunar to fight. He says the Pakistani army cleared them out for the most part, but Kabul still feels safer, and he can earn money to support his wife and kids back home.

Azizullah says he feels no certainty about the way Pakistan is headed. In that, he shares the same sentiment as many in Islamabad, Kabul and Washington. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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