A health worker stands in front of a bus driving migrant workers who have been tested positive for the COVID-19 to the Warsan neighborhood, where people infected or suspected of being infected by the virus are quarantined, in the Gulf Emirate of Dubai, on April 22, 2020. Photo: Karim Sahib / AFP

Jobless, running out of money and obliged to rely on charity or knock on doors to meet their basic food requirements, the South Asians who form the backbone of the Gulf economies have been left to fend for themselves during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The predicament of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, stranded with no safety net amid health lockdowns, has raised the question: who is responsible for this global workforce during a crisis?

For Irudaya Rajan, an Indian researcher who has been documenting labor migration to the Arabian Peninsula since the late 1990s, the responsibility lies in the oil-rich Gulf.

“Employers should be the first ones to look after workers, if not Gulf states,” Rajan told Asia Times.

While the employers are technically responsible, he said, it was regional governments that backed this sourcing of labor to develop their economies.

“The country of origin should be the last resort,” he added.

Experts at the London-based Business & Human Rights Resource Centre say employers should bear the brunt of the responsibility, given their control over these workers.

Foreign workers in the Arabian Peninsula are “in a particular position of disadvantage and therefore incredibly vulnerable” owing to the fact that a strict sponsorship system allows Gulf employers to exert tight control over their employees, representatives Isobel Archer and Danielle McMullan told Asia Times by phone.

Blue-collar workers, who often pay recruitment fees of more than US$1,000 to be granted a job, commonly see their identity documents confiscated by the Gulf employer.

The Covid-19 crisis is exposing systemic problems in “a much greater way” than ever before, they said. “Workers are in the Gulf only because they work on these projects … we do not want the private sector to push the responsibility on the state.”

Others say the governments of the Arabian Peninsula, who continue to enforce exploitative labor sponsorship systems, must bear their share of the responsibility.

Government-ordered lockdowns

Gulf Arab states continue to enforce the kafala, or sponsorship system, which ties blue-collar laborers to their employers.

The GCC-based advocacy group Migrant Rights calls that system “a conduit of modern day slavery.” Despite reforms in recent years, the system remains in place.

Gulf governments, faced with the prospect of a major Covid-19 outbreak, have imposed severe restrictions on their migrant labor populations, many of whom live in crowded apartments and slums.

To curb the spread of the virus, districts predominantly inhabited by low-income foreign workers in Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have been put under “total lockdown.” 

“We have seen clustered outbreaks in the labor camps,” a doctor in the UAE told Reuters, referring to areas in the outskirts of Gulf’s cities where laborers live in dire conditions, out of the public glare.

As of May 5, low-income workers accounted for a majority of the 67,600 Covid-19 cases recorded by the six Gulf Arab states.

“People pretend to be surprised as if nobody knew about overcrowded accommodations,” said Annas Shaker, a research fellow at Migrant-Rights.

Following the double shock caused by the pandemic and plunging oil prices, Gulf economies are going into a recession and foreign workers expect an increasing number of unpaid wages.

“I would put the main responsibility on the governments for having an inadequate labor dispute system that favors business owners over workers,” Shaker told Asia Times.

Foreign workers are the base of the $1.6 trillion Gulf economy, building public infrastructure such as stadiums for the World Cup 2022 in Qatar, strengthening businesses and the public sector and thus contributing to the region’s rapid development seen over recent decades. 

Yet human rights violations including unpaid wages, forced labor, poor living conditions and unexplained deaths are rampant. According to human rights group Amnesty International, Gulf states are “notorious for the systematic abuse and exploitation of the migrant workers.”

Human rights activists believe the Arabian Peninsula is now evading its responsibilities towards foreign workers, who account for a majority of the working population.

A woman wearing a mask for protection against the coronavirus in the Mall of Dubai on April 28, 2020, after the shopping center was reopened. Photo: AFP/Karim Sahib

Kafala system

In April, the United Arab Emirates exerted pressure on Asian nations to take back their stranded citizens.

Companies in the UAE affected by the economic downturn have meanwhile been granted the right to reduce foreign laborers’ wages.

Saudi Arabia in recent weeks declared it would subsidize 60% of its own citizens’ private sector salaries, but made no mention of its foreign laborers.

Qatar allocated $820 million to pay some salaries, but “none of the other GCC countries” committed to protecting workers’ wages, Migrant-Rights reported.

Beyond well-publicized acts of charity, Gulf countries have relied to a great extent on community-based organizations to provide struggling workers with food assistance.

In this context, Shaker called on labor-exporting countries to be “more outspoken.”

“They should talk on behalf of their workers,” he said, suggesting foreign missions could reach out to newspapers or post in Arabic on social media to engage dialogue with local populations.

“Having an active diplomat who goes to labor courts also matters,” the researcher added.

Stranded in the desert

Across the Indian Ocean, anxiety is growing over the fate of crucial remittances from the Gulf.

“It is a pillar of our economy,” a source at the central bank of Bangladesh told Asia Times.

“We should act collectively to support our brothers in the Gulf, out of respect for their contribution to our economy,” the source said.

“We owe our foreign exchange reserves to our laborers abroad.”

The Indian embassy in Oman for its part sponsored the Indian Social Club to distribute 10,000 food kits. “Each can support one for 10 to 15 days,” board member Suhail Khan told Asia Times.

For weeks, however, the Indian government had been in the spotlight for not repatriating its citizens who lost their jobs. It argued the country was under total lockdown and it “would not be prudent to repatriate Indians without adequate quarantine facilities ready” as nearly 45,000 Covid-19 cases were reported.

There are more than eight million Indians living in the Gulf.

Working in the Emirates, IT engineer Abdul Rahman could not fly back to India when his father passed away in Hyderabad on April 17.

“My mother and my sister were waiting for me to return home as they need support, which I cannot provide from here,” he told Asia Times.

In the UAE alone, about 200,000 Indians registered online to be repatriated.

On May 4, New Delhi declared it would “be facilitating the return of Indian nationals stranded abroad in a phased manner from May 7” with a priority for distressed blue-collar workers and people with medical emergencies. Yet, returnees will have to purchase their own tickets.

“We expect 10-15% of Keralite workers based in the Gulf to return in the coming months,” researcher Rajan said, referring to the province of India known for migration to the Arab states.

He warned that returnees will then face an economic reality they had sought to escape by migrating abroad.

“What will they do here? There is no job here in India,” the researcher said. Recent estimates put India’s unemployment rate at more than 20%.

The World Bank expects remittances to South Asia could decline by 22% in 2020, representing a $20 billion drop.

Following Covid-19, experts foresee limited room for systemic changes in the Gulf.

Annas Shaker hoped the level of injustice experienced during the Covid-19 crisis would be remembered by Gulf policymakers. But he feared the Gulf dependency on migrant workers would remain.

That is because, under the current labor system, migrant workers are “disposable.”

“You can always force them out and get new people.”

Also read: India to mount repatriation effort