Forced to beg for food and to fend for themselves, humiliated by xenophobic local news reports, victim of wage theft and at risk of contracting the virus in overcrowded labor camps, migrant workers are the COVID-19 victims the Arab Gulf region does not want the world to see.
"I don't know what to do," lamented Rakesh, an Indian electrician trapped in Kuwait’s Jleeb al-Shuyoukh for weeks during a strict lockdown imposed on the area. Like him, thousands of migrant workers struggled to access food, lacking assistance from local authorities.
"The pandemic exposed decades of systemic racial discrimination and a deep suffering that migrant workers have long faced under the Gulf states’ various labor governance systems," Hiba Zayadin, Gulf researcher for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, told me.
Beyond the legitimate query of who should bear the responsibility of sheltering migrant workers during the COVID-19 crisis lurks a moral question. Wasn't the pandemic a chance for wealthy Gulf countries to show compassion they could afford, and gratitude that they owe, towards migrant workers who build the region? From this moral standpoint, Gulf states have largely failed.
Economic measures aiming at sheltering Gulf economies from the downturn mostly share a similar pattern: citizen first. For example, Omani nationals cannot be fired, but migrant workers can. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain help pay subsidize private sector wages, but for their respective citizens only.
Conveniently labeled 'guest workers,' migrant workforces are, above all, disposable, transient and the first pliant variable for adjusting economic contractions. And although the coronavirus has intensified their distress, migrant workers in the Gulf have faced oppressive work conditions for decades. According to human rights group Amnesty International, Gulf countries are "notorious for the systematic abuse and exploitation of the migrant workers who contribute so much to their economies."
Indispensable, but neglected
The proportion of non-nationals in Gulf labor markets is among the highest in the world. In Dubai, a commercial hub for both the Middle East and Asia, less than 10 percent of the population is Emirati; the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest skyscraper, was built by migrant worker hands.
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"The industry still heavily relies on foreigners from all background for their know-how and productivity," acknowledged a source at a leading Middle East construction group.
Migrant workers also sustain Gulf cities, from driving cabs, operating restaurants, cleaning houses, treating COVID-19 patients and working for consultancy firms. Without the roughly 30 million foreign nationals, who mainly originate from India, Egypt, Pakistan, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Nepal, Gulf economies would come to a complete standstill.
"Migrant workers should be offered the same level of social protections that were made available to nationals," Amnesty International’s Gulf Researcher May Romanos told me.
Following a visit to Qatar, the UN’s special rapporteur for racism characterized the racial discrimination against non-nationals which structures Gulf economies as a "de facto caste system based on national origin," which enables discriminatory pay scales and an "firm societal association between certain types of work and specific nationalities." Low-income South Asian workers are often collectively nicknamed "Bangali," irrespective of their national origins.
According to human rights organizations and observers, systematic abuse and racism are rooted in the kafala, a sponsorship system enforced by Gulf states which objectify migrant workers by tying them to their employers, who sometimes confiscate their passports. Rights defenders have long likened kafala to modern slavery.
Despite changes - Bahrain announced repeal in 2009 but nothing much has actually changed, Qatar announced in October 2019 it will partially dismantle the kafala - Gulf countries "continue to operate" versions of the system, Amnesty International reported.
Amid the pandemic, 1000 employees (hailing primarily from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Egypt, India, and Pakistan) of the world's leading security group, G4S, half of them women, reportedly rely on food donations in the UAE. Employers feel empowered by government policies pushing the privatization of labor management, and this can easily lead to further exploitation.
Gulf business partners, including unscrupulous Indian businessmen, have been accused of delaying the wages of workers in distress, leaving them isolated, with no access to healthcare, and broke.
Talking to Haaretz, Isobel Archer, Gulf Project Officer at Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, a UK-based researcher centre leading in the field of documenting worker's rights violations committed by private companies, said allegations of the abuse of migrant workers in the Gulf quadrupled since last year. "Businesses are currently focused on economic survival, which means workers are often the last consideration," she said.
"Gulf states washed their hands"
But the twin hits of the COVID-19 crisis and low oil prices mean there is likely to be a dramatic shake-up in how Gulf economies will operate and, unsurprisingly, migrant workers will again bear the brunt of the change. Gulf economies are expected to shrink by 7.6 percent this year, causing a wave of sackings, which, Oxford Economics estimates, could result in more than 3.5 million migrant workers being forced to leave the region.
Indeed, the ‘flexibility’ provided by the kafala system to labor markets has long allowed Gulf states to weather economic contractions: they simply export their unemployment ‘problem’ back to their home states.
But COVID-19 derailed that well-oiled system: by late March, labor exporting countries closed their borders and refused to accept their own returning nationals, leaving Gulf states wholly responsible for their care and shelter.
"They are in Dubai, Dubai is responsible," said Irudaya Rajan, an Indian researcher on labor migrations who is a member of the Kerala state COVID-19 advisory body.
The Gulf states were outraged by the insistence that they had to care for the migrant workers who only weeks earlier had fueled their entire economies. They retaliated.
The UAE, home to about six million South Asians, and where nearly 90 percent of the 10 million-strong population are foreign workers, pointedly threatened "non-co-operative countries" that they would reconsider their migrant labor requirements, well aware that remittances from migrant workers are a crucial lifeline for millions of South Asian households. In Nepal alone, those remittances account for over a quarter of its GDP.
Seeing their desperation, and giving up on Gulf states’ good faith, India began a mission to repatriate its stranded citizens on May 7th. "Gulf states washed their hands of the responsibility that they bear towards migrant workers," Zayadin commented.
According to a Pakistani official interviewed by Reuters in May, around 12 percent of those who returned from the United Arab Emirates were infected with COVID-19. Indeed, exacerbated by crowded living conditions and poor healthcare access, migrant workers account for the majority of the over 500,000 coronavirus cases reported in the Gulf.
Mirroring the segregation that has been enforced across the region for decades, areas inhabited by low-income migrant workers, and suffering high rates of COVID-19, were sealed to protect nationals.
Responding to the high infection rate claimed by Pakistan for returning workers, an official at the UAE’s foreign ministry rejected that "version of events."
Belatedly recognizing they needed to defuse the crisis, Gulf governments announced a raft of measures including, among others, access for migrant workers to free healthcare, visa extensions, and forcing private companies to provide accomodation.
In Qatar, the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs actually included migrant workers in a $824 million scheme that subsidized private sector wages. But that kind of move is an exception. No other countries made similar announcements.
Filling the void left by governments, community-based initiatives stepped in. In Kuwait, an Indian welfare association distributed food kits to distressed migrant workers. "Some Kuwaiti people are also calling us to give money," noted a representative of the association in surprise.
"We hope this pandemic will serve as a wake-up call for Gulf countries, so they start reforming their discriminatory systems," Amnesty International’s Romanos said.
Significant structural changes are unlikely, however. Gulf states have long favored cosmetic changes over addressing the crux of the problem. "Unless the [kefala] system as a whole is abolished, you won’t see any real improvement in the lived experiences of migrant workers in the Gulf," Human Rights Watch's Zayadin said.
Any path to reform will raise the hackles of the more backward-looking elements of the Gulf business community. When Oman declared it could allow migrant workers to change jobs freely, upsetting a core tenet of the kefala system, businesses opposed the move, arguing it could "slow down productivity rates."
Economic realities also play against any real integration of migrant workers into Gulf societies. Since the 2014 oil crash, the rentier model of development, with its reliance on foreign multinationals to develop the Gulf’s petrochemicals industry, is crumbling, fostering a big push for more nationals to replace migrant workers, playing against a migrant workers-driven modus operandi.
Kuwait’s Prime Minister recently called to reduce the migrant workers population by more than half, saying the emirate faces a "big" demographic imbalance that needs to be "redressed." During the pandemic, Kuwait has stood out for its xenophobic rhetoric against migrant workers, accusing them of spreading the virus, stealing jobs and overcrowding medical facilities.
Migrant workers - non-Muslim, non-Arabic speaking and from very different ethnic backgrounds - will always be the "other," never integrated into Gulf states' national identities or granted citizenship, no matter how many decades they have resided there, and are thus easy targets of xenophobia, especially in times of crisis.
Yet the aspiration for Gulf workforces to consist entirely of locals remains an illusion. According to the Middle East construction group source I interviewed, unskilled and semi-skilled labor are "unavailable" among Gulf nationals and the going wage for construction jobs are viewed by nationals as "lower than acceptable."
Over 85 percent of unemployed Qatari citizens are "not willing" to work in the private sector, the country’s Labor Force Survey revealed, because public sector jobs offer far more benefits and tenure. There’s a similar situation in Kuwait where more than half of unemployed nationals refuse to work in the private sector, preferring government jobs.
"When the dust settles, they [Gulf countries] will take a few knocks and bring in plane-loads of workers from ever more desperate countries," writes Vani Saraswathi from the advocacy organization Migrant-Rights.
Despite amply demonstrating their necessity to the states that host them, migrant workers still don’t have any collective bargaining power, their cause has only limited allies and resonance locally, and their home states are too anxious about losing revenues and offending their hosts to use whatever leverage they could muster.
More than ever before, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the disposable nature of the Gulf’s transient workforces, and the diminishing chances they have to win more humane working conditions.
Sebastian Castelier is a journalist who covers Gulf Arab states and labour migration. His work has appeared in several Middle Eastern and international media outlets. Twitter: @SCastelier