Migrant workers suffer as COVID-19 pandemic persists in Gulf


Millions of migrant workers across the Gulf face uncertainty as host countries lockdown, employers withhold wages or mull redundancies, and strict coronavirus containment measures lead to deportations and confinement.

Advocacy groups including Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International warn that cramped accommodation and inadequate sanitation endanger migrant workers across the Gulf, who may not have access to healthcare.

Such workers’ risk of exposure to COVID-19 is so high, rights groups say, that host countries need to offer the same protections granted to their citizens or face the threat of a rampant outbreak that proves ever more difficult to contain.

They also face salaries going unpaid and arbitrary dismissal or deportation — an outcome that could spell disaster for families at home dependent on their income.

Concern is focused on the wealthy Gulf states, where migrant labour makes up half or more of the population. Gas- and oil-fuelled economies have lured millions of low-skilled workers from south and south-east Asia and Africa over recent decades.

Foreign workers in the oil-rich Gulf region, predominantly from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, account for around 10 percent of all migrants worldwide.

Construction workers are now mostly confined to dormitories, far from the skylines and stadiums they had been building, and stripped of their incomes. The same applies in the retail and energy sectors, staffed almost exclusively by foreign labour.

“The problem is in the dormitories,” said Ryszard Cholewiński, a senior migration specialist with the International Labour Organisation. “There have been attempts by a number of companies to sort out sleeping arrangements, but even on a good day in some of these facilities, people are four to a room.”

Across the Gulf states, migrant workers account for high proportions of COVID-19 infections. In Kuwait, the UAE and Bahrain, official figures suggest nearly all cases have been among foreigners, many of whom live in labour camps.

A report released by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre this month noted that migrant workers in the Gulf “live in tightly packed labour camps, often in unsanitary conditions, some without access to running water.

“These conditions provide the perfect conditions for the spread of COVID-19. Quarantines and other movement and travel restrictions … may inadvertently raise the risk to workers, as well as result in workers suffering severe economic consequences from being unable to work,” the report said.

The rate of infection among migrants has shaken Gulf states, which – mindful of the reaction of their citizens – have stepped up efforts to repatriate large numbers of workers, often meeting little response from home countries.

While Gulf states have offered healthcare to migrants who have tested positive for the virus, there are concerns among migrant communities that state authorities are reluctant to comprehensively treat the large numbers of carriers in camps.

The spectre of migrants being disproportionately affected by the virus while citizens are largely spared has cast fresh light on the near total dependency of some of the world’s richest countries on migrant labour to power their economies.

Despite hardships, workers have continued to flock to the Gulf, sending billions of dollars in remittances home, where employment opportunities are often fewer and not as well paid. (Source: The Guardian)