Brain Games

A MONTH or so ago, it was reported that Pakistan had lost workers at a higher rate than in previous years. In 2022, no less than 765,000 workers, many of them educated, left the country — far more than in 2021 (225,000) and 2020 (288,000). Of these 765,000 workers, 92,000 were highly educated professionals with degrees in medicine, technology, etc.

Most countries would have raised an eyebrow or two at such a number, particularly of highly skilled workers like doctors, but Pakistan did not bat an eyelid. But the exodus is not a bad thing. Pakistan’s beleaguered and shrinking economy is not producing jobs at a rate that can employ these workers. Even if the jobs existed, the astronomical level of inflation means that the wages offered would be next to nothing compared to what these youths and their families have invested in their education. And most of the highly skilled workers have not wandered far in any case. The majority has gone to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. From there, they can be relied on to send home regular chunks of their income which can replenish Pakistan’s almost down-to-zero foreign exchange reserves.

Plans put in place by Saudi Arabia and UAE mean that this is not a permanent or even semi-permanent solution for either the country’s depleted foreign exchange or skilled graduates. As the global economy moves away from fossil fuels, these regions are unlikely to remain the kind of hubs of commerce they are today. Some reassurance can be found in the fact that these economies are unlikely to crumble overnight and Pakistan’s highly skilled workers — accustomed as they are to fending for themselves — will likely find some other place for their talents. The numbers leaving Pakistan for the US and UK is far slimmer with just over 3,000 Pakistanis heading there.

The exodus is not a bad thing. Pakistan’s beleaguered and shrinking economy is not producing jobs at a rate that can employ these workers.

As far as doctors are concerned, it would be useful if the statistics provided could be compared to the total number of medical graduates in the country, although the 2,500 medical graduates that left last year are not all recent graduates and many may include those leaving for a short time to obtain advanced training. Given the fact that the global population particularly in wealthier countries is aging, the demand for healthcare professionals is likely to increase — making this field one which could be expanded to fit the needs of particular importing economies.

Brain drain always feels like a loss, but in a world economy where labour has to be mobile, this seems an outdated view. Then there are the pitfalls of the opposite phenomenon, or ‘reverse brain drain’. The global recession in 2008 threatened to create precisely that in India because of the high number of people that lost their jobs following the financial market crash in the US. The sudden shock to the Indian economy from a return of professionals in one or two fields threatened to overwhelm it.

‘Reverse brain drain’ is what is likely to happen in India in the next several months. There were more than 91,000 cumulative tech layoffs in the US last year. According to news reports in the US, an inordinate number of Indians working have been impacted. Currently, about 300,000 Indians are estimated to be working in the US on the ‘high-skilled workers’ or H-1B visa which is employment dependent. This means that those who have lost their jobs in tech in the past two months must all leave the country 60 days after their last day of work. In that time, they must sell their property, break leases, take children out of school and do whatever else they need to do to wrap up their lives in the US.

The high number of Indian tech workers in the US is the result of years of successful lobbying by the Indian government. This was a boon for as long as the US tech sector seemed immune to the downturns faced by all other economic sectors. It failed, however, to consider two things. The first is the fact that sending a huge number of Indians to America prevented most immigrant Indians from benefiting from the best advantage offered by the H-1B visa. Unlike most visas, H-1B visas can be converted into green cards. After six years of being on an H-1B visa, workers can ask their employers to sponsor them for Legal Permanent Residence (green card). If the green card application is approved, the worker is no longer tied to the employer but is free to work for anyone they wish. Moreover, after five years of continuous residence in the US, the holder is permitted to begin the process for becoming a US citizen.

Indian workers were unable to take advantage of this because for national security reasons the total number of green cards issued to the citizens of any one particular country, India or China for instance, is limited by a quota. So this means that even while Indians can come and stay for years on H-1B visas they have to wait over 15 years until their turn comes to obtain an employment-based green card. Because of this, some of the Indians that have to return after these layoffs may even be mid- to senior-level employees who have been in the US for a very long time. Just as brain drain can weaken an economy, reverse brain drain can overwhelm it.

Pakistan is not immune to reverse brain drain. If the Gulf economies crash faster than expected, then this country will also be faced by a huge influx of citizens that have to be absorbed into the domestic labour market. Given the likelihood of that not improving for decades, the prospect alone sounds like an utter nightmare for all involved.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

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