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Alainna Liloia

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

Many migrants go to the Gulf in search of better economic opportunities [Getty]

Date of publication: 8 April, 2020

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Comment: For migrant workers in the Gulf, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated their already vulnerable position, writes Alainna Liloia.
As Middle Eastern nations work to mitigate the spread of the deadly coronavirus, migrant workers in the Arab Gulf are among those hit hardest by the pandemic. The global crisis highlights the precarious position of migrant workers in the region and their lack of financial security as temporary, low-wage workers. 

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, a large number of migrant workers in the Gulf have lost their jobs and already-low wages, for the foreseeable future. Many have also contracted the virus while living in overcrowded housing, where it is impossible to practice state-recommended social distancing guidelines. 

Migrant workers in the Gulf are some of the most vulnerable - both economically and physically - in the face of the virus' global spread, and their lack of economic and class privilege places them among those who will suffer the most during the pandemic. 

A disadvantaged status 

The coronavirus pandemic is highlighting class divides and the disposability of low-wage workers all over the world. The Gulf is no exception, with the pandemic putting a spotlight on the struggles of low-wage migrant workers in countries where many citizens are wealthy, and enjoy the social and economic benefits of state patronage. 

While upper-class Gulf citizens quarantine in spacious homes and five-star hotels paid for by their governments, migrant workers and other economically disadvantaged segments of the population are not as fortunate. Migrant workers in particular are facing dire financial circumstances as well as unsanitary and overcrowded living conditions. The pandemic is revealing that, while the virus doesn't distinguish, systems of economic and social class do. 

The pandemic is revealing that while the virus doesn't distinguish, systems of economic and social class do

In the midst of rapid development, the oil-rich nations of the Gulf have relied increasingly on the low-paid labour of migrant workers to fulfill their economic development goals and projects. Millions of migrant workers are employed throughout the Gulf and comprise about 70 percent of the GCC's total workforce. Many migrant labourers originate from South Asian countries and come to the Gulf in search of better employment opportunities. 

These workers already face a great deal of precarity and a lack of financial security and legal protections. The coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in a loss of work and wages for many migrant workers, has only exacerbated their precarious position and left them with little to no options for improving their situation. 

Many of the existing issues faced by migrant workers in the Gulf stem from the fact that they must rely on a legal sponsor - either a citizen or company - to validate their work visa and residency. While some Gulf countries have implemented reforms to the sponsorship system, migrant workers continue to face severe inequality and a lack of legal protections. 

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Even when faced with abusive working conditions, mistreatment or a lack of compensation, it is difficult for migrant workers to change jobs or file complaints. If they decide to escape their employer, they will be considered an illegal resident and could face fines, detention or deportation for violating residency laws. They are also liable if their sponsor fails to process or renew their work visa, and sometimes end up stranded when employers confiscate their passports. 

Such policies serve to keep migrant workers in the Gulf in a state of temporary employment and residency, and prevent them from receiving the economic and social benefits afforded to Gulf citizens. Instead, they are forced to live in a constant state of financial insecurity and uncertainty. For some, the pandemic has only exacerbated their disadvantaged position as temporary workers, with no secure position in society. 

Coronavirus and migrant worker conditions

The coronavirus pandemic is making it difficult for migrant workers to provide for themselves and their families, and is putting many of them at high risk of contracting the virus. The inequalities these workers endure means they lack adequate means of improving their financial or material conditions. 

The spread of the virus has resulted in unpaid leave for migrant workers across the Gulf. Many non-essential businesses are shutting down and laying off workers or withholding pay, and even essential businesses are reducing or withholding pay and laying off workers due to a loss of business from the pandemic. Qatar Airways recently laid off 200 Filipino staff due to flight cuts resulting from the pandemic.

Their temporary status and a lack of adequate pay or financial security has left them at the mercy of their employers and the government

Travel restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus have also stopped workers from returning to their jobs in the region, and some who have been forced to quarantine report that they are not being paid. 

Meanwhile, those who continue working face an increased risk of contracting the virus. In Saudi Arabia, migrant workers have complained that they are expected to continue working while Saudi citizens receive paid leave. Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch notes that Qatar has already made positive steps towards protecting its migrant workers, such as earmarking funds to cover the salaries of quarantined migrant workers.

The overcrowded and sometimes unsanitary living conditions in labour camps and migrant housing also make it impossible for migrant workers to follow state-recommended guidelines for social distancing, increasing their risk of exposure to the virus. 

The Industrial Area in Doha where many migrant workers live became a hotspot for the coronavirus, puting many migrant workers at risk of contracting the virus. The government announced the closure of the area on March 17 as a containment measure, putting the workers living there under lockdown. 

Read more: Qatar designates industrial zone hospital as coronavirus treatment centre

The Qatari government also announced last week that workers under quarantine or receiving treatment will still receive their salaries. Other Gulf states have also taken measures to aid migrant workers in the wake of the pandemic. Saudi Arabia has promised to provide healthcare for all legal and undocumented residents, Kuwait is building temporary homes for migrant workers and allowing those who have overstayed their residency to leave the country without paying fines. The UAE is automatically renewing expired work visas. 

While such measures do serve to marginally improve the difficult situation of migrant workers in the midst of the crisis, they continue to suffer. Their temporary status and a lack of adequate pay or financial security has left them at the mercy of their employers and the government during the pandemic. 

Without broad reforms to the migrant labor system and the elimination of class divides and inequalities, the position of migrant workers in the Gulf will remain precarious and uncertain - even after the pandemic passes. 


Alainna Liloia is a PhD student in Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. Her research is focused on gender, politics and nation building in the Arab Gulf states.

Follow her on Twitter: @missalainneous

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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