As Coronavirus Spreads in Labor Camps in the Gulf, Workers Are Left Stranded and Jobless

The UAE, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait have locked down areas where low-wage foreign workers live in overcrowded conditions and are now surviving on charity

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Foreign workers wearing scarves to protect their faces stand in line to board a bus transporting them to their workplace, in Dubai, April 2, 2020.
Foreign workers wearing scarves to protect their faces stand in line to board a bus transporting them to their workplace, in Dubai, April 2, 2020. Credit: AFP

Charity workers are scouring the United Arab Emirates for empty buildings and Bahrain is repurposing closed schools to rehouse low income laborers from overcrowded accommodation, a hotspot for the coronavirus outbreak in the Gulf.

The challenge is not limited to the region's congested labor camps, where one room with bunk beds can sleep about a dozen workers, the virus has also spread in densely populated commercial districts where many expatriates share housing to save on rent. Many have lost jobs and are struggling.

Indian engineer Mohamed Aslam shares a three-bedroom apartment in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi with 14 other people. Health authorities put the building under quarantine after some residents tested positive for the virus.

"The charities are covering the food: dinner, lunch, breakfast," he told Reuters. "Praise be to God, because of charity we are surviving."

Aslam is among millions of foreign workers, many from Asia, who form the backbone of Gulf economies and work in the construction, hospitality, retail, transport and services sectors, many of which have been disrupted by the outbreak.

Most of the six Gulf Arab states have taken measures to curb the spread of infection, initially linked to travel, by suspending passenger flights, closing most public venues and imposing curfews. But the number of cases has steadily risen to surpass 16,500 with 111 deaths.

Bahraini police officer instructs foreign workers to wear protective gear in Manama, April 13, 2020. Credit: AFP


Most Gulf states have said they face a challenge with migrant workers. Some, including the UAE's Dubai emirate, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait, have locked down areas with a large population of low wage workers. All have stepped up testing.

In Saudi Arabia, a video widely circulated on social media showed at least 15 foreign workers being ushered out of one room with bunk beds to be tested for the virus. A Saudi official confirmed the authenticity of the video.

Gulf governments said they are sterilizing labor camps as part of disinfection drives. Bahrain said it would use schools to separate workers. Two charity groups in the UAE said they were looking for empty buildings where workers could isolate.

"Many people are infected and are staying with other people," Krishna Kumar, president of UAE-based Kerala Social Centre said. "We are trying to isolate them."

Three doctors in the UAE, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said overcrowding is one of the biggest factors for the surge in cases. "We have seen clustered outbreaks in the labor camps," one of them said.

Authorities in the UAE, which has the second largest number of coronavirus cases after much larger neighbor Saudi Arabia, did not responded to requests for comment.

Several Gulf Arab states have allowed outbound flights for expatriates who have lost jobs or been put on leave, but some countries say they are not prepared to take them back.


In the UAE, diplomats and four charities said they were delivering thousands of meals, medicine and other essentials each day to people who had become destitute.

Indian national Abdulla, who declined to give his last name, said he had not worked at his Abu Dhabi retail job for two weeks and was relying on charity. A Ugandan office assistant living in a labor camp in Dubai's Jebel Ali, who declined to be named, said he had not been paid in weeks.

The UAE has said it would review labor ties with states refusing to repatriate citizens after the ambassadors of India and Pakistan said their countries were not yet ready to do so.

"We're aware of all of those who have been laid off and their plight," Sayed Zulfiqar Bukhari, special assistant to Pakistan's prime minister, told Reuters in Islamabad.

"We're just waiting to create the right mechanism so that we don't overburden the system of taking people in here," he said, adding airlines needed to be equipped for safety.

Bangladesh Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment Minister Imran Ahmed said Dhaka was working to alleviate citizens' hardships, including sending money to foreign missions "so that migrants in trouble can be taken care of".

A Philippines official said citizens overseas can qualify for a government stipend of $200.

Valerie, a Filipina receptionist in Dubai who shares a one-room studio with five others, had her wages cut and is digging into savings to support her parents and six siblings back home.

"I'm worried about my family if I lose my job," she said, adding that she worries about going out to buy groceries. "It's scary. We don't know if we will bring back the virus with us."

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


Palestinians search through the rubble of a building in which Khaled Mansour, a top Islamic Jihad militant was killed following an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, southern Gaza strip, on Sunday.

Gazans Are Tired of Pointless Wars and Destruction, and Hamas Listens to Them

Trump and Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, in 2020.

Three Years Later, Israelis Find Out What Trump Really Thought of Netanyahu

German soldier.

The Rival Jewish Spies Who Almost Changed the Course of WWII

Rio. Not all Jewish men wear black hats.

What Does a Jew Look Like? The Brits Don't Seem to Know

Galon. “I’m coming to accomplish a specific mission: to increase Meretz’s strength and ensure that the party will not tread water around the electoral threshold. If Meretz will be large enough, it will be the basis for a Jewish-Arab partnership.” Daniel Tchetchik

'I Have No Illusions About Ending the Occupation, but the Government Needs the Left'

Soldiers using warfare devices made by the Israeli defense electronics company Elbit Systems.

Russia-Ukraine War Catapults Israeli Arms Industry to Global Stage