As foreign-exchange earners, they are Pakistan's biggest and best. About 2 million-strong, Pakistani overseas workers send home more money than all the foreign aid their country amasses annually from around the world. Without them, say economists, Pakistan's usually perilous balance-of-payments position would be hopeless.
Officially, the $1.8 billion they sent to their dependents at home last year equaled threequarters of Pakistan's total export earnings. When estimates of "under the table" pay packets sent home are added, their remittances hit $3 billion -- easily topping the South Asian nation's total of $2.3 billion overseas sales of goods and products.
Pakistan, a country of 80 million whose exports were once dominated by rice and cotton, has become one of the world's leading manpower exporters.
From manual laborers to highly educated professionals, Pakistani workers are now leaving home for overseas jobs at a rate of nearly 12,000 a month. The government, whose figures showed more than 118,000 legal labor migrants last year, has even higher targets in mind: 200,000 for this year, a quarter of a million for 1982.
In addition to the legal migrants, thousands more slip out of the country illegally to seek their fortunes in the current mecca for Pakistani overseas workers: the Middle Eastern and Gulf states where oil wealth sends wages up to 10 times those back home. "Earlier we had a brain drain to European countries. Now we have a muscle drain to countries that have the petrodollar," says a Pakistani manpower official. "There's a pull force there and a push force for unemployment and low wages here.'
The workers' remittances, in hard currency, are critical to Pakistan, which needs the foreign exchange to meet its foreign debts and pay heavy import bills, which far outstrip export earnings.
Since each overseas worker supports an estimated five people back home, repatriated wages have been the avenue to better diets, clothing, and shelter for families throughout the country. The wages sent home -- which the goverment forwards to families in the form of rupees -- have pushed Pakistan's annual per capita income to $283, the highest in the Indian subcontinent."This is a success story for Pakistan," a Western diplomat says.
But like many success stories, it has an underside as well. While emigration has helped ease Pakistan's chronic unemployment and underemployment, it has been bleeding the country of skilled tradesmen and technical workers.
With thrifty overseas workers' families receiving what one economist calls "unimaginable amounts, more money than they're ever seen in their lives," inflation and the demand for nonessential consumer goods have soared as well.
Ostentatious wedding ceremonies, urban real estate, and jewelry are other favorite outlets for Gulf money, even as planners deplore the country's low savings and investments. "A substantial part of the remittances, maybe up to 70 percent, goes into personal consumption and real estate," according to Iqbal Saeed, secretary of the Ministry of Industries.
Yet to be studied are far-reaching social changes caused by male wage earners absent from their families for long stretches and by rising ex pectations of upwardly-mobile lower-class workers.