Laborers are seen in Kuwait during the Covid-19 outbreak in April 2020.

Gulf workers who traveled to the Arab Gulf states with dreams of getting ahead have in recent weeks found their incomes curtailed by lockdowns, hard-earned savings depleted, remittances unthinkable, and health conditions in peril.

The state of Kuwait, to curb the spread of the Covid-19, on imposed on April 6 a full lockdown on two densely-populated areas predominantly inhabited by foreign workers. According to South Asian men trapped in Jleeb al-Shuyoukh area, a sense of panic is spreading among workers whose meager reserves are quickly depleting.

“I am quickly running out of money and yet I cannot exit the area to work. I have already cut down on my food consumption to survive, so, how do you expect me to pay the rent?”, said Rakesh, an Indian electrician who lives in the district.

“Everything has stopped,” said taxi driver Anil, worrying for “thousands of daily wage earners cab driver who are now jobless”.

Like other Gulf countries, Kuwait has long relied heavily on low-income foreign laborers originating from South Asia, Africa, and the greater Middle East to achieve economic success. Non-Kuwaitis account for nearly 70% of the emirate’s 4.4 million population.

In April, a coalition of human rights organizations raised concern over the situation of the 23 million workers living in Arab states who are increasingly vulnerable amid the ongoing crisis.

Costly ‘free’ visas

Six years ago, Rakesh landed in Kuwait dreaming of a better future. His visa did not grant him a job, only the right to stay in the country legally, at the cost of 700 Kuwaiti Dinars (KWD), or $2,243 per year. His sponsor, a Kuwaiti citizen, sold Rakesh a visa and left him free to find a job by his own.

Involved in legal or illegal activities, hundreds of thousands of foreign workers like Rakesh operate at the margins of the Gulf’s notoriously rigid labor markets, a so-called ‘free visa’ in hand.

“A free visa is a misnomer,” said Atyab Alshatti, Deputy Secretary-General at the Kuwait Society for Human Rights. “It was created to bypass the conditions of the kafala (sponsorship) system, which constrains your ability to choose your profession or who do you want to work for.”

Anil and his colleagues work as freelancers, driving taxis. “We rent the cab for 8 KWD per day ($26) and do most of the maintenance by ourselves. None of the renting companies provides us with food, accommodation or other allowance, our daily wages should pay for it”.

Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, these un-tethered workers are left on their own, unable to benefit from a legal provision that asks employers to pay wages. This population is “badly affected”, the spokesperson of the GCC-based advocacy organization Migrant-Rights told Asia Times.

On April 23, a ministerial decision announcing a working group to eliminate the phenomenon of visa trade and take legal actions against ‘those responsible’ was made public.

From a medical perspective, Kuwait’s Minister of Health claimed that the total ban on the Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh and Mahboula areas paid off as many Covid-19 cases were discovered –  at the time of publication, the Gulf country reported more than 2,200 cases and 13 deaths.

Life-threatening situations

According to Atyab Alshatti, lockdown measures might be prolonged until these two areas are Covid-19-free. “If the lockdown lasts for weeks, there will be dead bodies,” warned an NGO worker in Jleeb al-Shuyoukh who spoke to Asia Times on the condition of anonymity.

On April 20, Kuwait announced it will expand a nationwide curfew to 16 hours a day from 4 pm until 8 am and extend the suspension of work in the public sector until May 31.

According to the NGO worker, ‘daily wage workers would be left starving without food assistance’. To avoid a humanitarian crisis, Kuwaiti authorities distribute food supplies, yet, local sources worry distribution sites could become a hotbed to propagate the virus.

“While the government advises people across the country to practice social distancing, in Jleeb al-Shuyoukh it asks everyone to line up to collect food kits from a large container. How professional is this? It only increases risks to spread the virus!”, the NGO worker said. 

Besides governmental initiatives, community-based organizations are collecting financial and material donations from Kuwaitis and non-Kuwaitis donors to provide a lifeline to workers who face life-threatening situations.

An Indian NGO in Kuwait told Asia Times to have distributed ‘over 500 food kits’ in Jleeb al-Shuyoukh. Yet, it acknowledged “there are just too many people. Some buildings are out of reach, there are coronavirus patients inside.”

Globally, the World Food Program estimated that ‘the Covid-19 pandemic could almost double the number of people suffering from acute hunger unless swift action is taken’.

‘Get out of here’

Beyond their own struggle, foreign workers face making a living in hydrocarbon-rich Gulf countries, their primary source of concern is back home where millions of families across South Asia rely on hard-earning remittances to live.

“We are sitting inside the room thinking of our family back in India. How can I send money? They are waiting for us,” Rakesh said.

Before the crisis erupted, he used to send home about 25,000 Indian Rupees ($327) a month to support his wife and son and pay back a loan he had taken out years ago. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, he could not send any penny, leaving him worried.

The latest World Bank estimates project remittances to South Asian countries to decline by 22 per cent in 2020 due to the double shock of the Covid-19 crisis and plunging oil prices.

Across the Gulf region, foreign workers who oftentimes live paycheck to paycheck remain the most vulnerable group to the Covid-19-induced economic downturn.

In Qatar, a similar lockdown on Doha’s industrial district has left workers “trapped in squalid, overcrowded camps, where the virus can spread rapidly,” The Guardian reported. The Qatari government allocated a budget of $824 million to support private companies in paying wages to their employees.

In Saudi Arabia, the government announced it will assist foreign residents who wish to return to their home country while in Oman the government has allowed private companies to “ask non-Omani employees to leave permanently”.

In the town of Haima, in central Oman, an Indian worker told Asia Times he has decided to allocate his monthly income to assist strangling subcontractors workers who are running out of money. “Without assistance, they would starve,” he said.

In this context, foreign workers in Jleeb al-Shuyoukh call on the Kuwaiti government to allow those who struggle to return to their country of origins. “They should open the airport so at least we can fly home and once the situation improved we will return,” Rakesh said. 

The Kuwaiti government announced an amnesty between April 1 and April 30 for foreign workers who are in an irregular situation and wish to leave the country without paying fines.

It remains unclear if those who live in Kuwait under a ‘free visa’ can benefit from this amnesty. “This measure is only for illegal migrants, but we have a legal visa!,” Anil said.

Moreover, some labor-exporting countries are under lockdown. “The Indian and Pakistani envoys to Abu Dhabi would not agree to take their citizens back immediately, saying they needed time to prepare for quarantines”, the Washington-based outlet Al-Monitor wrote.

In Kuwait, an actress said foreign workers should be dropped “in the desert”. “Why, if their countries do not want them, should we deal with them? Aren’t people supposed to leave during crises?” she questioned.

The Jleeb al-Shuyoukh-based NGO worker said some landlords expelled tenants unable pay, telling them “if you don’t have money, get out of here”.