Saturday, March 14, 2015

Who are "expats" anyway?

The Guardian carried a short article on the term "expat" or "expatriate" related to privilege. Having just passed my 3-month return date from 7 years in Qatar, I tend to agree with the assertion that expatriates are a privileged class of workers by contrast to others who are labeled migrant or immigrant workers. It is a mark of the privilege of an expat that I had never noticed the difference in language; however, I know I was never called a migrant worker and many of the really good people I knew were never dignified by being called expats.

For those who are accorded the expat title, perhaps a little reflection is in order. The article has a picture at the top which says it all. When expats work abroad, what kinds of systems and stereotypes might they be perpetuating? One of the benefits of expatriate work in Qatar was that salaries were good and the pay scales of migrant workers were very low - allowing the expats to hire nannies, house keepers, cooks, and drivers that they would never be able to otherwise afford. The rationalization was that the migrant workers benefitted from the extra pay they could earn from the many odd jobs they took in order to scrape by while sending most of their earnings back to their families. This rationalization is real - the migrant workers needed the extra income in order to support their families. But the reality of perpetuating classism and subjugation remains.

I have to admit that the privilege of being an expatriate worker was something I enjoyed. This article calls me to reflect on how I treated those around me. Did I treat these friends/colleagues with respect? Did I offer fair compensation for their labor? Did I do anything to challenge the systemic conditions that resulted in the migration of so many people from their homes? For those who have never worked abroad, the numbers are huge - primarily among Southeast Asians and Africans. Because of economic or political conditions in their home countries, these "expatriated" workers had no other choice. They had to take the risk of going to a place very different from their home, spending extended periods away from family and loved ones, and hoping that in the end they would be able to provide for their families.

Sobering thoughts...

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