The coronavirus (COVID-19) is on track to pass 2 million confirmed cases worldwide. In a situation that has been repeated around the world, governments across the Middle East have responded to the worsening crisis with a series of strict social distancing measures, implementing extended out-of-house curfews, shutting down non-essential economic activity, and halting both domestic and international travel.
While undoubtedly necessary, the Middle East’s response to the pandemic is placing considerable stress on the oil-dependent regional economy. This is especially true for sectors that involve foreign workers, such as construction or tourism. The mass collapse of migrant worker livelihoods is an especially concerning prospect for Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. According to the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic Affairs, the GCC singlehandedly hosts some 23 million migrant workers.
Worker Rights and Repatriation in the UAE
Before COVID-19 was officially declared a global pandemic, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was one of the first countries to launch a proportional response to the threat, proactively rolling out strict social distancing policies, shuttering non-essential businesses, and closing high-risk air transit routes.
Even though a nationwide economic lockdown is still in effect, the UAE government has offered to support the repatriation of recently unemployed foreign workers back to their home countries. Unfortunately, the UAE’s announcement has received a frosty reception from migrants’ home countries, most of which are located in South Asia and East Africa. India’s ambassador to the UAE, Pavan Kapoor, cited virus fears while defending India’s decision to deny migrant repatriation from the Gulf.
“Once the lockdown in India is lifted, we will certainly help them get back to their hometowns and their families,” said Mr. Kapoor.
Ghulam Dastgir, Pakistan’s ambassador to the UAE, repeated this sentiment in an interview with Reuters, saying: “We are very keen to bring Pakistanis back, but we need to finalize our treatment and quarantine facilities.”
After its repatriation offer was rebuffed, UAE officials have warned migrant home countries that they risk a review of existing labor arrangements if they continue to refuse the return of their own citizens.
Faced with millions of stranded expatriates, the UAE’s next challenge is sheltering migrant workers from coronavirus-induced layoffs amid region-wide economic downturn. To this end, the UAE government recently brought in a set of legislative accords for migrant accommodation and worker rights. Senior judges in the Abu Dhabi Labor Court have since reiterated these accords, cautioning UAE companies that they must continue to provide a housing allowance for any employees that have been made redundant.
Because of these legislative actions, even if migrant workers are denied re-entry by their home country, the UAE government will still be in a position to support basic living requirements. In addition to stopping a massive spike in homelessness, these measures will also avert a breakdown in social distancing practices, thereby preventing an uptick in community transmission of COVID-19.
Lack of support elsewhere
Unfortunately, the UAE’s progressive position on foreign workers affected by COVID-19 is the exception not the norm. Elsewhere in the Gulf and broader Middle East, foreign workers are facing significantly bleaker conditions. Besides refusing to uphold worker rights, many Middle Eastern governments are also failing to provide foreign workers with reliable access to much-needed public health services. This is a disastrous trend as foreign workers are one of the demographic groups that are most at risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19.
In countries like Qatar, migrant workers have only recently ceased working on high-density job sites or construction projects. Fearful off a local epidemic, Qatari authorities have begun herding some 2 million foreign workers into quarantine camps, many of which are cramped, squalid, and unsanitary. Qatar’s quarantine response has triggered outcry from both human rights organizations and infectious disease experts, both for its moral shortcomings and its exacerbating effect on the spread of COVID-19. Without adequate sanitation, food, and medical supplies, Qatar’s high-density labor camps are effectively functioning as incubators for COVID-19 and other transmittable diseases.
Without mass testing, there’s no way of knowing the rate of COVID-19 transmission inside foreign worker labor camps. However, what little information we do know paints an exceedingly grim picture. On the outskirts of Doha, worrying reports are emerging from Qatar’s largest worker camp, an over-crowded, prison-like grid of neighborhoods called the “Industrial Area.” To prevent a breakout, armed police patrol the perimeter of Doha’s vast labor camp. Unable to escape the tightly-packed camp, most workers in the “Industrial Area” have been placed on unpaid leave. A handful of migrant workers are still receiving monetary reimbursement for accommodation and food. Even still, meager monthly stipends are of little use to Qatar’s foreign worker population, many of whom are in desperate need of food or medical attention.
While the UAE scrambles to treat and shelter migrant workers, its neighbors pursue different policies. Perhaps the most tragic aspect of this situation is the fact that the Qatari government has more than enough financial resources to assist languishing foreign workers. Rather than following the UAE’s lead, Qatari policymakers have instead chosen to prop up wealthy corporations, with a recent government announcement revealing that the government has allocated more than $23 billion in private sector assistance.
While support for the migrant worker community in the wake of COVID-19 exists in some parts of the region, sadly, it is the exception rather than the rule.