Gulf migrant workers count the cost of coronavirus

Gulf migrant workers count the cost of coronavirus
8 min read
08 April, 2020
Migrant workers in the Gulf are bearing the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic as states introduce strict quarantine measures and travel bans.
More than 25 million foreigners live in the six GCC countries. [Getty]
While Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have aggressively responded to the coronavirus by introducing strict quarantine measures and travel bans, huge concerns remain over the fate of migrant workers, who may bear the brunt of the pandemic.  

Moreover, millions of expat workers across the Gulf fear for their health and job security, including their salaries, as many employers withhold their wages or consider layoffs 

More than 25 million foreigners live in the six GCC countries, representing 70 percent of the total GCC workforce. The majority of them are low-income workers. 

Migrant workers 'trapped' 

Some countries have quarantined areas populated by migrants and stopped public transit, effectively restricting the movement of low-income workers. In the absence of a vaccine or effective medicine, this aggressive response remains the only measure of prevention.  

However, advocacy groups have expressed their concern about conditions in many foreign labour camps, which are often overcrowded and equipped with inadequate sanitation facilities - including running water, the uninterrupted supply of potable water and poor drainage systems.   

Rights groups have also raised the question of worker's accessibility to healthcare services. Amnesty International reported that workers "trapped in camps" are particularly vulnerable, enduring conditions that make social distancing impossible. 

More than 25 million foreigners live in the six GCC countries, representing 70 percent of the total workforce

In Qatar, tens of thousands of workers are confined to Doha's Industrial Area after dozens in the blue-collar district tested positive for the Covid-19 virus. 

Although the government said it was working closely with employers in the country to "ensure the welfare and medical needs of the residents are met," there have been reports claiming that residents have not been provided with elementary services, such as having difficulties in accessing groceries and medical supplies. 

Nevertheless, according to Andrew Gartner, a socio-cultural anthropologist from the state of Washington-based University of Puget Sound, and expert on Gulf migration, Qatar has made significant headway in the past decade.  

Speaking to The New Arab, he said that the migrant workers he is in contact with stated that "their facilities are regularly checked to ensure that occupancy limits are obeyed by employers and camp owners."  

"And perhaps more importantly, the labour camps and facilities that I visited in Asian Town last year were notably cleaner, roomier and organised," he added. 

"The average conditions for unskilled workers in Qatar have improved over the past ten years, and it behoves us all to be wary of assessments of those conditions that are not up to date." 

Read more: As coronavirus hits the Gulf don't forget about migrant workers

Kuwait News Agency also recently reported that the country's Ministry of Public Works has revealed plans to build temporary homes for nearly 25,000 expatriate labourers in line with its measures to curb the spread of Covid-19. 

However, Migrant Rights, a GCC-based advocacy organisation, points out that the status of live-out domestic workers, on the other hand, has been neglected, as they belong to a high-risk group working in homes and interacting with many people.  They are also vulnerable because many are irregular workers who do not have access to health services. 

GCC countries vow to protect foreign workers 

In recent weeks, some Gulf authorities have pledged to offer help to all their residents including expat workers, which may be a promising sign in fighting the coronavirus pandemic.  

King Salman of Saudi Arabia has ordered coronavirus treatment to be available, free of charge, for all citizens and expatriates in need of medical care, including people who have overstayed their visas in the kingdom. 

A similar message came from Qatari authorities as well, as they promised to take care of all residents, including expatriates.

Read more: The long walk home: Modi's coronavirus lockdown triggers mass exodus of India's desperate migrant workers  

However, Dr. Seven Roper from the department of Political Science at Florida Atlantic University says that all governments are currently struggling to keep up with promoting safety policies that protect individuals.  

Despite improvements made in the last few years, he says that the conditions in worker camps create a dangerous scenario in which the virus could easily be transmitted. The labour system in place in the Gulf provides few protections for workers, and more incentives for employers to ensure that labour continues. 

Job uncertainty on the rise 

Lower-income workers who have been prevented from returning home have been acutely affected as they are now stranded for an indefinite period of time, without wages, according to Migrant Rights. There have been also reports about an increasing number of workers being put on unpaid leave until further notice, an outcome that may have heavy consequences for the workers' families at home.

Lower-income workers who have been prevented from returning home have been acutely affected as they are now stranded for an indefinite period of time, without wages

Professor Gartner says that those salaries are serving multiple purposes - oftentimes feeding families back home, but also paying off the debts that are typically incurred to migrate in the first place.  

"The non-payment of wages, therefore, reverberates across the transnational divide, and impacts the sending households as well as the migrants abroad," he told TNA.

Additionally, the non-payment of wages can lead to penalties and additional interest paid to moneylenders and banks back home, thereby exacerbating the situation for migrants and their families. 

As a result of these arrangements, they are the most vulnerable class of residents in the wealthy states of the Arabian Peninsula. 

Dr. Roper added that leaving Gulf countries may be difficult and countries like India or Nepal may not wish to repatriate hundreds of thousands of workers right now.  

In his opinion, Gulf governments need to provide some form of employment safety net for these workers so that they can continue to receive wages and reduce contact within the worker community until such a time that the virus has subsided. Simply putting workers on a plane for home is not feasible. 

Read more: Trapped in Lebanon: Fears of abuse for migrant
domestic workers amid Covid-19 lockdown

No commitment to protect migrant financial rights 

In the past weeks most of the Gulf governments have announced policies aiming to boost economies and compensate losses in the private sector where most expat workers are employed.   

Qatar's government announced a package worth 75 billion Qatari riyals (£18 billion) in incentives and support for the private sector including waiving rentals and utility fees. It also adopted a three billion riyal (£656 million) loan scheme to pay the salaries of workers and rents of the employers, and mandates that quarantined workers receive their salary in full.  

Saudi also introduced a $32 billion package to support businesses, including the suspension of sponsor-related costs. However, some reports from Saudi Arabia claim that the owners use it to cover their own losses suffered from closures without caring for their workers.  

Despite the adoption of these Covid-19 related policies, Migrant Rights warns that there have been no commitments to specifically protect migrant worker's wages and financial rights, except in Qatar.

The organisation also stresses that Gulf countries have been no strangers to the non-payment of wages during economic downturns and governments have "not shown any effective commitment in the past to curtail the ripple effect on migrant workers or to punish employers who default on payments." 

Expat businessmen also share concerns over the situation.  Besides direct losses of employment due to government restrictions and indefinite closures of businesses, many expats fear the consequences of bounced cheques resulting in criminal prosecutions due to compulsory quarantines and travel prohibitions. 

The economy of the region, which is still significantly dependent on hydrocarbons as well as tourism and transport, will most likely face a huge fallout resulting in massive layoffs

Some company owners from the UAE, for example, complain there is almost zero flexibility among lenders, and local business partners and sponsors expect to be paid even if the company is going through difficult times.  

All of these types of issues become criminal cases in the UAE very rapidly, and have not seen the courts ever take mitigating circumstances into consideration, so the fallout from the coronavirus measures are likely to be massive, and expats are going to bear the brunt of it, according to Radha Stirling, founder of Due Process International, which address the plight of foreigners embroiled in questionable legal systems around the world.  

An exodus of expats after the pandemic? 

The economy of the region, which is still significantly dependent on hydrocarbons as well as tourism and transport will most likely face a huge fallout resulting in massive layoffs. 

Christopher Dembik, the head of macroeconomic analysis at Danish Saxo Bank, observes that the Arabic peninsula is facing a triple wave: the health crisis linked to Covid-19, the economic consequences related to containment measures, and the sharp decline in oil prices that are likely set to continue in the short term. 

The current crisis may lead to an exodus of foreign labour causing a negative effect on Gulf banking systems.  According to S&P Global Market Intelligence, retail deposits (from locals and expatriates) in the UAE and Qatar account for around one-quarter of their respective banking systems' total deposits.

Read more: Gulf supply chains weather the storm as Europe struggles during the coronavirus crisis  

Dembik thinks that once containment measures are lifted, the likelihood that labour shortages will happen in many countries is elevated as a consequence of the economic crisis, the sudden halt to real estate projects and the rise in the unemployment rate.  

"Foreigners will certainly temporarily return to their home country which will increase pressure on the banking sector in the region and potentially cause a sharp increase in cash withdrawal," he told The New Arab 

However, the risk of bank runs is extremely limited and he doubts that banks will be in a weak position in the long term. He forecasts that governments will eventually step in to support the banking sector and inject money to support the economy, potentially using reserves of the sovereign fund if they have one.  

Despite frequent criticism of how some non-democratic systems run their states, Gartner says that the clarity and certitude found in Gulf monarchies may be advantageous in this particular situation - in that governments have the capacity to respond quickly and rapidly to the changing the landscape of the pandemic. 

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, terrorism and defence