The migrant workforce is the silent engine of the Middle East. In 2019, a sum of 25 million migrants worked in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. These migrants, mostly originating from South East Asia, make up the majority of the populations of Gulf states like Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain. The dawn of COVID-19 has cast new light on the absolute dependency of GCC countries on migrant labour for economic prosperity. It is, thus, ironic that even with this heavy reliance, the treatment and rights of these labourers vary greatly from those of nationals. Although these inequalities have long been acknowledged by various human rights organisations, the pandemic has evidenced the discrimination facing migrant workers through epidemiological statistics and government responses. The numbers show that migrants are disproportionately affected by the virus, while citizens are largely spared. While inequality and racial discrimination could be easily overlooked before the pandemic, COVID-19 has made addressing these issues a matter of urgency, for the mutual benefit of residents and citizens alike. The migrant crisis could be an opportunity for long-anticipated permanent structural change in society, the law, and government.
Inequality in the light of COVID-19
Epidemiological statistics published by Gulf governments reveal a welfare divide between the migrant working class and nationals. According to the Saudi Health Ministry in May, foreign residents comprised 76 per cent of new coronavirus cases in Saudi Arabia, even though migrants account for 30 per cent of the Saudi population. The reason for this disparity lies in the lack of healthcare and unsanitary and overcrowded accommodation facilities to which most labourers were confined to. As lockdowns were enforced, tens of thousands of workers from the construction, retail, and energy sectors abruptly lost their jobs. Construction workers were moved en masse into dormitories consisting of small, unventilated rooms accommodating as many as a dozen workers each. Consequently, the virus proliferated in these conditions, leading to high infection rates and no way out. Ryszard Cholewiński, a senior migration specialist from the International Labour Organisation, confirmed that even with the best attempts of companies to sort out safe sleeping arrangements in camps, it was rare to find less than four workers sleeping in one room. The lack of social distancing was compounded by a lack of access to running water in some camps, overcrowded and neglected toilet facilities, and a paralysing lack of movement. All these factors led to alarming infection rates in the Gulf states, where the vast majority of infections were recorded among migrant populations.
The panic caused by the spread of the virus has also exacerbated pre-existing racist attitudes against migrants, as exemplified by the words of famous Kuwaiti actress Hayat al-Fahad, who called for moving migrants ‘out of hospitals and into the desert to make space for nationals’. Xenophobia has also resonated from government officials such as Kuwaiti MP Safaa Al-Hashem, who utilised the tumultuous circumstances to call for the mass deportation of migrants in order to ‘purify the country from illegal workers’. COVID-19 has intensified racist public discourse, leading to government proposals by Kuwaiti lawmakers to ban new recruitment of ex-pat workers and curb the ex-pat population from the current 70 per cent down to 30 per cent.
Gulf governments have also indirectly discriminated against migrant workers by largely excluding them from new policies and stimulus packages aimed at reducing the economic impact of COVID-19. Some GCC states have suspended work permit fees paid by businesses, and frozen rent and loan payments. These measures have largely benefited business owners but have done little to cover the unreceived wages of minimum-wage workers or provide for them; in Bahrain, a survey of 300 migrant labourers found that over 60 per cent had not received their wages, and over 80 per cent were struggling to cover rent and food costs. While the Bahraini government, alongside Saudi Arabia, pledged to provide furlough payments to nationals, these policies were not extended to the ex-pat majority of the population. An ICU nurse who volunteered for Bahrain’s COVID-19 campaign reported that, unlike Bahraini nurses, migrant workers do not receive hazard pay or compensation for their work.
Impact on female domestic workers
A dismaying consequence of virus-related restrictions has been suffered by a group already at the highest risk. Although current data shows that COVID-19 is less deadly for women than for men, women in MENA economies will most likely disproportionately feel the social and economic impacts of the pandemic. Human Rights Watch reported a particular concern for female migrant workers who face increased exposure to gender-based violence (GBV) and entrapment in employers’ homes, due to pre-existing abusive conditions amplified by the pandemic. Over 80 per cent of Filipino domestic workers in Kuwait reported working longer hours, and the numbers of GBV complaints are continuously rising. The month of Ramadan saw heightened workloads for many female domestic workers due to the employers’ inability to hire additional staff. Conversely, many workers have also lost their jobs and accommodation due to the scaling down of staff by employers. Moreover, due to the restrictions of available services, domestic workers are asked to take on extra duties they do not have training or PPE for, leading to work-related injuries. However, it is the kafala (sponsorship) system which many domestic workers have found most detrimental during the pandemic. The legal system, utilised to varying degrees in all GCC states, means workers are not allowed to leave or change employers without their employer’s permission. The employer is in charge of their work visa and residence permit, giving them the ultimate power over the employee. Fleeing an abusive employer can lead to imprisonment or deportation and, in the light of COVID-19, some states are exercising additional penalties on workers fleeing abuse due to violating curfews and restrictions.
Responses of Gulf Governments
Government measures to alleviate the migrant crisis have been varied across the Gulf. Kuwait has granted amnesties and repatriation flights to undocumented migrants in the country, and a nationwide media campaign funded by the UN was publicised to counter the increase in xenophobia. Qatar took the lead in responding to the migrant crisis by becoming, at the height of the pandemic, the only GCC state to introduce a scheme protecting migrant workers’ wages. The Qatari government allocated almost a billion US dollars in bank loans for businesses to provide furlough and funds to cover rent costs. Workers in quarantine and isolation were also continued to be paid salaries with no deductions. However, it is unclear whether workers who lost their jobs are included in the scheme. Furthermore, due to the bank loan nature of these payments, some businesses may attempt to pass on the burden of repayment to employees. The UAE claims to have implemented automatic visa extensions, guaranteed food and accommodation provision, and access to free healthcare, while Saudi Arabia was the first to offer free testing and treatment to all migrant workers. Nevertheless, an overlying drawback for all these measures is the migrants’ learned fear of authorities, and consequently their hesitance to report to local authorities for help. Although, as previously mentioned, multiple governments have offered amnesty and aid to undocumented workers, these people are still far less likely to contact authorities due to fear of detention, even if that is not the intention of the state. Indeed, 23,500 migrant workers who surrendered themselves to authorities in Kuwait following the announcement of amnesty measures were subsequently left stranded in desert detention camps in atrocious conditions for over a month. There has also been a broad collective effort to repatriate hundreds of thousands of migrants, which resulted in various challenges. Home countries like India and Pakistan were initially not prepared to welcome repatriated workers, given the challenges associated with managing mass returns and the increasing shortages in job prospects at home. Moreover, many workers could not afford the costs of travelling home and staying in quarantine facilities for 14 days. Ultimately, circumstances created by both the home and host countries resulted in a prison-like limbo for the masses.
A Silver Lining?
It is important to observe that while the crisis affecting migrant workers during COVID-19 has been one of the most severe in modern history, it could also be the long-desired push for permanent change in legislation, welfare, and society. Following a worldwide surge in online activism and anti-racism protests, international media campaigns to end the system of kafala have been numerous and visible on every social media platform. The campaigns are bringing fresh awareness to the plights of migrants in the Middle East and likening the exploitative system to ‘modern slavery’. An online petition calling for the abolition of kafala in Lebanon has gathered over 35,000 signatures, prompting the Lebanese government to initiate talks with the ILO. The talks resulted in Lebanon’s Minister of Labour Lamia Yammine expressing her intentions to include foreign domestic workers in labour laws and to adopt a revised work contract for migrants which would address current inequalities. The impact of this campaign has shown that ending kafala is achievable, even though there is still a long way to go.
The pandemic has also been an opportunity for Arab governments to address the working conditions of migrant labourers. The virus has shown that it is in the interest of citizens themselves that migrant workers have access to healthcare, adequate housing, social security and just working conditions. Improved conditions for migrants result in lower overall infection rates in the population, protecting society as a whole. Construction companies have invested in improving dormitory facilities to align with lockdown measures, and civic bodies are regularly conducting inspections to ensure adherence to anti-COVID-19 measures. Detailed recommendations have been made by international bodies for improving the health and safety of workers on future sites, a matter which was not given as much attention before the pandemic. In terms of legal rights, Oman announced in June the lifting of a ban on ex-pats changing jobs from January 2021, a positive and long-awaited improvement for foreigners’ working rights. On June 30th, Qatar set up a new office to implement verdicts in labour cases and enhance the complaints process. Finally, the pandemic has facilitated national discussions about countering racist attitudes towards migrants. Online racism has been met with viral responses from Arab celebrities, who highlighted the lasting contributions of front-line migrant workers such as nurses, carers, and cleaners.
The post-COVID-19 world will likely face severe economic hardships, millions of job losses, and reactionary responses restricting labour migration in the Middle East. However, labour restrictions will never stop desperate populations from migrating, but instead drive riskier migration. Furthermore, struggling businesses will be enticed to save money by sourcing workers through unethical recruiters. These risks should be acknowledged and seen as a reason to plan for a responsible recovery. Governments will have new incentives to make improvements and can utilise large volumes of valuable data gathered during the pandemic. Businesses will have to invest in re-establishing labour supply chains, offering them a chance to revise old practices and improve the treatment of thousands of workers.
Today’s tragedy could be tomorrow’s opportunity.
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