The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global economy have been staggering. The outbreak has triggered the largest spike in unemployment the world has ever seen, with tens of millions of jobs lost in North America and Europe alone.
As the coronavirus continues to keep much of the world’s businesses closed, governments have had to make tough decisions on how to support the unemployed. While many countries have skirted responsibility in taking care of their workers, others have stepped up to the challenge.
The Arabian Gulf houses a substantial number of foreign workers that make up a vital component of the region’s economy. Unfortunately, lockdowns in the wake of COVID-19 have hit hardest the very sectors these workers tend to operate in such as construction, tourism, and hospitality.
For the UAE especially, conditions have become more challenging as many countries have refused to repatriate their own citizens working in UAE, including those who lost their jobs or were put on leave, due to fears of spreading the virus. “Several countries have not been responsive about allowing back their citizens who have applied to return home under the current circumstances,” said the Emeriti Human Resources and Emiratisation Ministry, without specifying which countries.
Asian countries that make up the largest sources of migrant workers in UAE have stated that repatriating large numbers of their people will not be possible as long as strict quarantine policies remain in place. “Once the lockdown in India is lifted, we will certainly help them get back to their hometowns and their families,” said Pavan Kapoor India’s ambassador to the Emirates. On a similar note, Pakistan’s ambassador Ghulam Dastgir told media sources that he was waiting for permission from Islamabad to allow repatriation flights. “We are very keen to bring Pakistanis back but we need to finalize our treatment and quarantine facilities,” said Dastgir. What this means for Emirati leaders is that they are now responsible for thousands of stranded and jobless foreign citizens.
Despite this burden, the UAE has remained committed to supporting its foreign worker population. Recently, a major Emirates court ruled that laid-off staff must receive sustenance wages for the duration of their unemployment. Abdulla Al Nuaimi, head of the Abu Dhabi Labor Court ruled that UAE companies must continue to pay staff their housing allowance if they are made redundant.
“Normally, all labor issues go through the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation first before they reach us,” said Al Nuaimi in an official statement. But, he said, due to the current crisis, these cases are now considered “urgent matters” and plaintiffs can approach the court directly. This means workers can file a complaint and have it referred to a judge immediately.
Al Nuaimi’s directives were a reassertion of a government decision issued in March establishing various rights for the employees during the COV-19 crisis. The government order, Resolution No. 279, requires the continued payment of employees’ housing and all their entitlements until the individual leaves the UAE or they obtain the necessary authorization to work for another establishment.
The Emirates’ outreach to its migrant worker community appears to stands in stark contrast to the realities taking shape elsewhere in the Gulf.
In Qatar, for instance, efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 have turned worker residential areas into virus incubators. The largest labor camp in Qatar for example—the so-called “Industrial Area” on the outskirts of the capital Doha—has already become what some reports describe as a prison, with residents still quarantined inside. Some of the Industrial Area’s workers are still employed, but others have been put on unpaid leave and confined to their homes.
Some areas of these camps have been completely locked down, making access to even food and medicine nearly impossible. International observers have pointed to the conditions in these camps as detrimental to preventing the spread of disease. According to Elizabeth Frantz of the Open Society Foundations’ International Migration Initiative, cramped and unsanitary living conditions mean that social distancing is “really difficult to achieve.”
Many migrant workers are recruited to work in construction and cleaning jobs, meaning they already endure respiratory health problems due to dust, pollution and heat stress, making them especially at risk to COVID-19. Even workers allowed out to reach their places of employment are hardly faring any better. Many construction and oil/gas companies, sectors that are big employers of migrant workers, are maintaining their operations without even basic health safety and mitigation practices, like providing face masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer.
While the Qatari government has tried to introduce laws to ease the plight of workers, mechanisms have fallen short. According to Human Rights Watch’s Michael Page deputy Middle East director, “the authorities seem more interested in promoting these minor reforms in the media than in making them work.”
Migrant workers have been the very backbone of economic growth in the Gulf for decades. These workers have helped construct large, modern centers of commerce and tourism that have thrusted the Gulf nations into the international spotlight. Their work must be acknowledged and their rights protected, particularly during the current crisis.
Amin Farhad is a political analyst specializing in Middle East affairs, specifically intra-Arab relations and conflict resolution.