Migrants are the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis in the Gulf. While cases among nationals in countries such as Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain run in the single digits, hundreds or thousands among foreign workers are ill, according to national counts. An initial outbreak in March among construction workers in a labor camp in Qatar prompted a swift lockdown of thousands of workers, according to Business & Human Rights (BHR), a 15-year-old NGO, based in the United Kingdom. Crowded and substandard living conditions in labour camps are ripe for spreading the virus, the NGO said. There are about 20 million migrant workers from South- and South-East Asia and Africa working in the six GCC countries, which include Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman. They represent 90% of the workforce there as well as 10% of migrants globally. GCC countries are already under scrutiny from human rights NGOs like Amnesty International or BHR, which tracks labor and human rights abuses in the region. The problems range from lockdowns and harsh containment measures, to limited access to healthcare and basic services, poor working conditions and insecure income, all of which put them disproportionnally at risk.
Five major problems
1. Overcrowding makes labour camps a virus incubator
With a minimum of four workers per room, labour camps are ideal incubators. “Migrant workers in the Gulf live in tightly packed labour camps, often in unsanitary conditions, some without access to running water providing the perfect conditions for the spread of Covid-19”, according to BHR. “Workers’ proximity to one another… also does not allow for any type of social distancing”, adds a report by Amnesty International which emphasized that those “trapped in camps in Qatar” were particularly at risk of exposure to the virus. “The disease can spread very quickly in such conditions. We don’t have the full extent”, confirmed Ryszard Cholewinski, senior migration officer at the International Labor Organization (ILO). Undocumented workers who “have an innate dread of approaching the authorities because of fear of arrest, detention and deportation”, are one of the most important and uncontrollable risks of contagion, he said.
2. Quarantine worsens unfit living conditions and work conditions
According to migrant-rights.org, a GCC based advocacy organization, Bahrain low-income migrant workers forcefully quarantined in formal or informal labor accommodations are left completely reliant on civil society organizations for food and basic necessities. “More than 600 informal labor accommodations were found to be “unfit for living”, states the orgaization. Workers also complained that garbage and food waste was piling up inside their rooms.” With the epidemic and the lockdown, embassies and charities have been overwhelmed by the sharp rise in need. According to BHR, construction workers in Qatar and the UAE did not have access to safe sanitation and were not given clear information regarding the outbreak.
3. Expulsion and repatriation: no good solutions
Some countries have summarily detained and deported migrant workers without giving them recourse to appeal. Dozens of Nepalese workers in Qatar were thus expelled in March, according to Amnesty International. While the government contended that they were involved in illegal activities, “what’s worrying is that they were simply deported without legal process” , said Houtan Homayounpour, Head of the ILO office in Qatar. In some cases, workers’ countries of origin have been reluctant to take them back in large numbers because of domestic fears of new infections. This has, for instance, stimulated tensions between India and Abu Dhabi. “The host country wants to send them back. The countries [of origin] don’t want to receive them because they feel they can’t cope with them. It’s a dangerous situation for migrant workers,” said Danielle Mac Mullan, senior labour researcher at BHR.
4. Few avenues for appeals
Across the region, many construction workers have lost their jobs as a result of the economic slowdown, but they have few avenues for appeal. “Migrant workers don’t have the tools, or the power to protect themselves”, Mac Mullan added. Systems for dispute resolution in the region are not as robust as other parts of the world, even though workers have employment contracts. “There are a lot of issues in the way these mechanisms have been operating in terms of costs, lengths of settling the case, language issues, and lack of information especially for migrant workers. As a result of the crisis, these mechanisms are not operating to their full capacity. Sometimes there are reduced to an online platform,” said Cholewinski. For instance, legally expelling a worker from the UAE requires his or her mutual consent, but already-vulnerable migrant workers have little power to negotiate, confirmed Isobel Archer, Project officer for the GCC at BHR.
5. Working conditions and severe economic hardship
“Despite lockdown, construction is continuing in Qatar and the UAE, and we hear that social distancing is not happening on many of these projects”, said Mac Mullan. Both countries have been in the spotlight because of Qatar’s plans to host the 2022 World Cup while the UAE is hosting Expo2020, although its now been delayed for a year. Human rights officials also say that they are concerned about what may not be reported in GCC countries elsewhere. There are also many other areas in which foreign workers have lost their jobs and lack income for food and basic necessities. These include hospitality workers, daily wage earners, like cleaners, who depend on moving freely to earn money, and employees of non-essential businesses that were ordered to close. “In hospitality, they are hardly working at all, not to mention small and medium size enterprises, day workers or freelancers who do not have a regular status. Some of these groups are in dire straits. They are very dependent on their wages and if you don’t get paid, and you don’t have savings, you’re going to run out of food very quickly. There are a lot of situations like that across the region,” said Cholewinski.
The financial impact on migrant workers will continue to reverberate even as the economy reopens, according to migrant-rights.org. It’s been estimated by the World Bank that global remittances from foreign workers will fall by 20% in 2020. “It can be both an individual catastrophe for the migrant workers and family members back home in terms of loss of income, for education, health care, and sustenance on a very broad scale”, said Cholewinski.
Official measures taken, a brief review
Despite the concerns expressed, official measure have been taken by some Gulf states to test, treat and contain the virus spread among migrant workers - but they vary widely.
Bahrain: Mass screening, free testing and treatment has been offered for foreign workers, and there is a call for the private sector to take measures to protect workers better, including their relocation in temporary accommodation to allow for more social distancing.
United Arab Emirates: One million tests administered (over 10% of the population/ 100 deaths and 9,813 cases 26 April); automatic renewal of migrant workers’ paperwork; 30,000 foreigners repatriated to Asia and Africa; flights back of 40 000 Pakistani workers underway; Emaar Properties to suspend major projects in Dubai.
Saudi Arabia; Labour and human rights groups have almost no access to information; dozens of migrants have been held for minor immigration offences released to avoid plague.
Kuwait: An Amnesty programme has been established for 160 000 workers (only 50 000 have applied); large scale returns to country of origin
Qatar: Guidelines have been issued to secure food allowances and adequate housing; salaries can be lowered with worker’s agreement; awareness campaign put in place on health and safety measures; equal access to free testing and treatment; reduced working hours on construction sites.