Does the astonishing volume of global remittances redeem the moral ambiguities of migrant labour? In camps, hospitals, beauty parlours and under doormats, John Gravois watches the money move. Down the glass-fronted row of exchange houses along Abu Dhabi's Liwa Street - the city's unofficial remittance district, where hundreds of security cameras monitor a long, intermittent border-fence of plexiglas teller windows - Maridel Estrelles walked briskly one recent afternoon carrying a glossy faux-leather handbag and, as usual, a wallet full of other people's money. Trying to keep pace alongside her was a young Bangladeshi man in a spread-collared shirt named Zilani, who carried a small, scuffed laptop folio with flimsy turquoise piping. They were rushing to catch a taxi to the Musaffah Industrial District, 30 minutes away, hoping to arrive there ahead of the clattering buses bound home for the labour camps at sundown. A wholesomely pretty, disarmingly charismatic Filipina, Estrelles was dressed in a modest acrylic sweater, pale blue jeans and sandals, which slapped the pavement in double time as she walked. Without breaking stride, she called out cheerily to a cluster of blue-jumpsuited Bangladeshi construction workers sitting tiredly on a kerb, who blinked before recognising her and waving back. "Customers," she explained, before stepping into traffic on Hamdan Street. Estrelles' easy-going manner is an asset in her job - which is to intercept workers' remittances before they ever make it to Liwa Street. Estrelles works for one of the smaller currency brokers in the capital. Her role is to serve as a kind of field agent - a shoe-leather remittance collector who, in effect, brings the exchange house straight to the customer. In a green and yellow taxi, Estrelles directed the driver to a particular labour camp in Musaffah and shut the door, muffling the street noise with a sudden thwump. No sooner had the taxi pulled into traffic than her BlackBerry rang, and she reached into her purse for a pocket calculator and a short stack of bills wrapped in a folded piece of paper. "Including charge?" she said, craning her neck. "One thousand six-hundred thirty two." She typed a few numbers into the calculator. "Yes, po'o'poh." Signing off, she slipped the cash back into her purse with a little joke: "My wallet is full of money, but not mine!" The caller had given Estrelles a sum of cash several days before, but asked that she hold onto it until exchange rates to the Philippines improved. Now he was calling to learn the value of his remittance at today's rate. He still didn't like what he heard, so the money went back into Estrelles's wallet. It was a service she offered to many of her customers. "Sometimes I'm carrying four million," she said, sitting behind our burly taxi driver. "But nothing happens." Today's destination was a labour camp. On other days Estrelles collects remittances from nurses on hospital wards, hairdressers at their beauty parlours or housemaids in their employers' kitchens. Month in and month out, they hand her as much as 90 per cent of their earnings and then watch her disappear into the crowd. One of her most long-standing customers ("she is like my mother," Estrelles says) is an elderly housemaid whose employer forbids her from leaving the home. Each month, the older woman secretly deposits as little as Dh100 under the doormat; Estrelles picks it up and leaves a handwritten receipt in its place. Then she ferries it back to Liwa Street, where it joins the steady stream of wages that accumulate each year into a $10 billion flood of remittances out of the UAE. Much as scientists once assumed that human activity was far too puny a force to influence the climate, economists long assumed that remittances made a negligible contribution to the global economy and the development of poor nations. But when a World Bank economist named Dilip Ratha - a migrant himself, from a poor village in the Indian state of Orissa - began putting together annual global tallies of wage transfers across borders in 2003, the numbers were dumbfounding. In 2008, to cite his most recent tally, Ratha estimates that $338 billion in remittances poured into developing countries. All the foreign aid in the world, by comparison, added up to just about $100 billion. For many countries, remittances are quite simply the most important source of foreign funds. That's the paradox of remittances - the most vulnerable players in the global economy add up to one of its most formidable forces. The great tide of $338 billion begins with Dhs100 left furtively under a welcome mat and carried away in secret. En route to the labour camp, I asked Zilani about his role in this travelling remittance operation. "I am here for security," he said, smiling helpfully. Then he held up the rumpled little laptop bag with the turquoise piping. "I carry the money."
By the time Estrelles and Zilani arrived in Musaffah, dusk was beginning to fall. They walked down an alleyway formed by a long barracks and a concrete boundary wall, where jumpsuits and street clothes hung drying from countless little wire parabolas. The pair turned left into the barracks, then right down a damp corridor - Estrelles gave the security guard a familiar wave - then left again, into a tiny cafeteria, where a few suitcase-sized cauldrons of food covered in foil and two cases of apples sat waiting to be served for dinner. On a table, Zilani unzipped the laptop bag so that its two halves laid flat on the surface, like a travelling physician's kit; inside lay a thick stack of small bills (for change), a fat-keyed calculator and a carbon-copy book of receipts. From her Guess handbag, Estrelles brought out her own calculator and book of receipts, which she placed neatly next to her BlackBerry on the table: an impromptu front office amid vats of boiled rice and chicken stew. Outside in the hall, a sound of shoe-squeaks and voices began to build, and soon figures in jumpsuits were blurring past the cafeteria door on the way to the camp showers. Several of the Filipino men in camp - Estrelles's customers - paused in the doorway to pay their respects and tell her they would be back in a few minutes with their month's wages. Over the next hour, they trickled in with fresh stacks of bills. As Estrelles began filling out receipts, peering up at Dhs1,000 banknotes in the fluorescent lights, and punching numbers into her calculator, the wad of money in Zilani's laptop folio grew. There was a remarkable air of warmth in the characterless little room. Estrelles had been serving this particular crew of skilled construction workers for about three years, and it showed. "With most of them, I've memorised their wife's name," she said. "I just look at their face and write it down." (She teased one man who sends money home to two wives in different parts of the Philippines. "They don't know," Estrelles laughed. "I know.")
Watching Estrelles talk with the men whose wages she couriers, it was clear she played more than the role of remittance collector; she seemed by turns a social worker, financial adviser and guardian angel. When a man in a sleeveless basketball jersey named Ronaldo came in, Estrelles reminded him of his upcoming wedding anniversary. A little over a year ago, when he decided to bring his fiancée over from the Philippines, it was Estrelles who arranged the woman's visit visa, housed her for a few days (she couldn't very well stay at the labour camp) and then fixed her up with a secretarial job. "I'm just waiting for the baby to come!" Estrelles joked. Because trust and respect is so essential to her business, Estrelles comports herself with the self-awareness of a public figure. On the weekends, if she ever goes out on the town, she does so an hour and a half away in Dubai - where she is not likely to run into any of her hundreds of customers. "They respect me," she said. "I don't like them to see me in bars." (Never mind that she doesn't drink.) Over the years, Estrelles has loaned money to some of the men - "from my pocket," she said - when they've gone home to the Philippines on holiday; she has also, on occasion, intervened on their behalf with their employer. "I used to write some letters to the company complaining that a lot of the workers had stomach aches from spoiled food," she said at one point. What's more, the letters seemed to have an effect. The food improved. The stomach aches abated. "There is Filipino food now," she said. "Before it was only Indian food." When dinner was served at around 7pm, the cafeteria suddenly became crowded with men stuffing mismatched bowls, plates, plastic bags, cups or metal pots with rice and stew, and Estrelles and Zilani slowly began gathering up their things to leave. Following a trip to the camps - Estrelles visits several every month - she typically returns to her office to file a report on the evening's transactions well after dark. Then she breaks for dinner and heads home to her small flat, where she sets about the laborious process of sending text messages to all the wives, siblings and parents in the Philippines who have been listed as beneficiaries of the day's transactions. Sometimes it takes until 2am; after that, in the wee hours, wives in the barrios and hill towns will sometimes call her to ask questions about their husbands or an incoming sum.
Over the past few years, the flourish of interest in remittances has opened the door to a broader idea - that the migration of unskilled labourers, often regarded as little more than a sordid recipe for exploitation, may represent the key to international development. No one has pushed that idea further toward its logical extremes than Lant Pritchett, a Harvard economist and fierce advocate for the cause of cross-border mobility. In Pritchett's hierarchy of moral concerns, freedom of movement trumps all: wage gaps between rich and poor nations are so scandalously wide, he argues, that any other issue - labour rights, political rights, worries over cultural erosion - pales in comparison. And so, for that matter, do other approaches to development. Pritchett recently calculated that sending 3,000 Bangladeshis to work to the United States for a year would provide more capital for Bangladesh than a year's worth of loans from the celebrated Grameen Bank - the microfinance lender whose founder, Mohammed Yunus, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. "If I get 3,000 Bangladeshi workers into the US," Pritchett asked facetiously in a recent lecture, "do I get a Nobel?" This paramount emphasis on labour mobility generates an unconventional cast of international heroes and villains. In Pritchett's view, countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait - which employ armies of guest workers, house them in labour camps, forbid them from organising unions, often deny them equal protection under the law and pay them the wages of an underclass - are actually doing more to redress the inequities of the world than western nations that maintain high labour standards but keep migrants out. Pritchett isn't happy about the conditions labourers face - but if the political choice is between offering workers full labour rights and letting them into the country, he says, better to let them in. And yet the situation of migrants in the UAE seems to draw little but bad press. Within the country, the overwhelming presence of foreign workers, who comprise at least 71 per cent of the population, is often regarded as a threat to "national identity", and low-level social tensions simmer on the ground. Human rights organisations have raised innumerable alarms about working conditions in the UAE and the other Gulf states. Low-wage foreign workers who have been granted the freedom to enter the UAE, they point out, have all too many of their freedoms taken away as a condition of coming here. Moreover, for the typical outside observer, the familiar image of wealthy Emiratis and western expats living comfortably alongside exhausted, low-wage South Asian work crews appears as a clear sign of moral callousness. Again and again, visiting journalists have cited the inequalities on display as evidence of the "underbelly" of the UAE - a characterisation that, among other things, seems to rule out the possibility that workers come here for good reasons. Our deeply conflicted, not-yet-global sense of morality finds something repugnant in the proximity of extremes. But what if proximity is the only thing that can narrow the chasm between those extremes? Is the situation of labour in the Emirates a symptom of inequity or its cure? And for the workers who leave behind families, homes and countries to inch towards greater equality with the world's wealthy, what are the costs of catching up?
When I asked Estrelles why she did things like loan her customers money or help them arrange visas for their loved ones, her answer had nothing to do with marketing or business. We were sitting in the labour camp cafeteria, and she lowered her voice below the murmur of the workers. "It's because I understand their situation," she said, "because I have also been there." Last year, she told me, her sister Madeline in the Philippines came down with pneumonia. It was a severe case, so the family decided to transfer her to a hospital in Manila, several hours away from their home. The expense was huge. "In the Philippines," Estrelles said, "if you don't have money, you will die early." When her sister's condition did not improve, Estrelles flew to Manila, again at great cost. But by the time she reached the hospital, Estrelles told me, Madeline had lost the strength to speak. She communicated using a printout of the alphabet, pointing out words letter by letter. When Estrelles came into the room, Madeline spelt out the word "H-a-n-n-a-h" and began to cry. "Who's Hannah?" I asked. "My daughter," said Estrelles. Estrelles gave birth during a visit to the Philippines five years ago. When Hannah was still a baby, Estrelles made a decision that is achingly common in her country: she chose to go back abroad and leave her child behind to be raised by relatives. (Estrelles's husband also works in Abu Dhabi.) To spare Hannah the trauma of growing up motherless, the family decided that Estrelles's sister should raise the girl as a daughter, not a niece. And so, Estrelles said, Hannah grew up believing she was just a faraway aunt. In the hospital, Estrelles assured her sister that Hannah would be alright. And true to her breadwinning function in the family, she phrased her assurances in financial terms: Whatever expenses arise, she said, I will shoulder them. Not long after that, Estrelles told me, her sister died. Just then a Filipino man in a blue jumpsuit emblazoned with the letters IMCC walked into the cafeteria, wanting to send Dh1,395 home to his wife. Estrelles handled the transaction and then went on. During the wake, the family tried to tell Hannah the truth about Estrelles. "This is your mother," the girl's grandfather said. But Hannah refused to believe it. She pointed at the coffin and said: "No, that's my mother. She's beautiful. She's going to wake up." During the remainder of her stay in the Philippines, Estrelles told me with a slight waver in her voice, Hannah rejected her. "She didn't like to come with me," Estrelles recalled. "She didn't like to sit with me." By the end of the ordeal, Estrelles was not only stricken with grief, she was out of money. The medical bills, the travel and the funeral had depleted all of her savings - about $20,000 (Dh73,500) worth. Which made it all the more clear what she had to do, for her own sake and for the family's. "I started over," Estrelles said. Armed with a job and a credit card, she came back to Abu Dhabi - and arrived just in time for the global recession.
When the brunt of the economic crisis hit the Gulf last year, and shocks battered the region's construction sector, many expected the worst damage to manifest itself time zones away in India, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Economies so heavily propped up by remittances, it was thought, were bound to be most vulnerable to the crash. If Dubai caught a cold, wouldn't Kerala - which derives nearly a quarter of its GDP from overseas wages - fall deathly ill? For development economists who study remittance flows, that question posed a genuine mystery - but some of the alarmism surrounding it smacked of the old tendency to underestimate remittances. The dynamics of such a truly global economic crisis had never been observed from the standpoint of migrants, says Dilip Ratha, who now leads the World Bank's migration and remittances team. Economists had already established that overseas workers tend to dig deeper into their pockets when disaster strikes at home. What would happen when recession straddles both sides of the equation? "We didn't know," says Ratha.
As it happened, the picture that emerged as the crisis unfolded was almost bizarrely reassuring: in a period that battered most private international capital flows, remittances emerged as a pillar of stability by comparison. Overall, remittances declined slightly, by six per cent. But in many places, the transfers didn't plummet - they surged. Deposits into Keralite bank accounts from overseas workers actually increased by about 20 per cent between September 2008 and September 2009 - some of the ugliest days of the crisis. Similarly, according to the World Bank, remittances to Pakistan went up by 24 per cent in the first eight months of 2009; to Bangladesh, they went up by 16 per cent; to the Philippines, by four per cent. Remittances to the Arab world, Africa and South and Central America fared less well, but the expected collapse did not materialise.
For Ratha, the surge in remittances to certain countries - most of which were the result of one-time factors, such as unexpected currency fluctuations - was less impressive than the picture of deep underlying resilience that emerged. The stock of working migrants continued to grow throughout the global recession - more slowly than before, but surely. The mass homeward migrations that some feared never came to pass. Many migrants lost their jobs but stayed abroad, looking for other jobs or undocumented work, and they cut costs to keep their remittances up. While global private investors trimmed their sails and retreated to safe harbours, migrant labourers mainly weathered the storm.
For Estrelles, the downturn claimed a camp full of customers in November, when a construction company in Musaffah went out of business, taking with it 40 Filipino workers - men whose trust and friendship she had built over several years. It was hugely discouraging, but around the same time she caught a lucky break that cushioned the blow.
One day, in a little grocery store in Musaffah, she struck up a conversation with a Filipino construction worker named Jethro Saedola. He told her he had just arrived in Abu Dhabi a few days before as part of a large, newly assembled crew of skilled workers, many of them Filipino. Estrelles and he exchanged phone numbers, and she asked him if he might let her know when his crew was due to receive its first pay cheque. If she played her cards right, she could capture the business of 150 skilled Filipino construction workers - beginning with their very first remittance home.
Saedola texted her just before New Years with the news that his first cheque had finally arrived, and Estrelles hurried to Musaffah. She followed him up two echoey flights of stairs to the small bunkroom that he shared with seven other men. Blue hard hats and drying underwear hung from the walls, and dozens of strangers drifted in and out, but Estrelles seemed utterly at ease. Using her teeth to break off strips of cellophane tape, she posted printouts of the day's exchange rates in the hallway just outside the bunkroom door, like signboards that said "open for business".
Between the bunk beds in Saedola's room, she sat on a crude wooden stool fastened together with board nails and hunched over a makeshift table constructed from an overturned bucket and a piece of wood. Soon workers were lined up outside the door, and she was writing receipts furiously as they leaned and loafed in the halls.
Watching the men, I thought back to another evening I had spent with Estrelles. She and I were walking down the long alleyway leading to Ronaldo's camp in Musaffah, past the lines of drying clothes. Men coming home from their work sites were dashing past us, racing each other down the alley. And then Estrelles said something that shocked me, because it deviated so much from the script of acceptable ways to talk about labourers - a script, I realised, that I had not yet shaken off.
"Simple life, eh?" she said wistfully as the men dashed past us. Her voice was quiet, the envy it expressed sincere but not resentful. "No demands, no pressure," she said. "At the end of the day, they're very happy."
Out in the hallway I chatted with a few of Saedola's colleagues as they waited to see Estrelles. One talked about setting up a first bank account for his school-age son; another said he saw his family "once a week - on Skype"; they told jokes in Tagalog. At that moment, only Estrelles looked burdened, barely able to look up from her makeshift table. The little scuffed laptop bag with turquoise piping was there as well, filling up fast with money on the move.
John Gravois is a senior editor at The Review.