The outbreak of COVID-19 has disproportionately affected a number of marginalized groups throughout the world, and migrant laborers in the Gulf region are no different. These workers had been under severe economic strain far before the COVID-19 outbreak, and the outbreak has only worsened their living conditions by forcing them into high-risk quarantines and removing their sources of income.
In 1996, the International Labor Organization (ILO) flagged the declining labor conditions created by booming growth throughout the Middle East. The ILO’s report detailed a worsening dynamic in which predominantly South Asian migrants were traveling in droves to find work in Gulf states, where wages were falling in turn with the labor surplus. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates provide prime examples of the inverse relationship between national growth and labor conditions. As these two states attempted to diversify from their oil industries and create tourism draws, the need for construction work skyrocketed. This drove up migrant labor and drove down wages. Indeed, in 1992 the ILO reported that “‘Malaysians earn the most at $536 per month, followed by Filipinos and Thais. At the bottom of the scale are Sri Lankans, at $37.60 per month.’” Without access to higher wages, these workers are unable to afford some basic necessities. Laborers throughout the Gulf region can seldom afford health insurance and often live in labor camps, where as many as twelve migrants pack into a small room.
Dismal wages are only one source of strife. The labor visa system in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states requires employers to act as two-year visa sponsors. This system, known as the Kafala system, gives employers control over immigration status and therefore massive power over their employees. In that two-year period, migrants are de facto stuck with their employer. This has led to massive abuse and rampant violence against migrant laborers. Some particularly violent instances of murders have grabbed headlines, but the power dynamic creates severe pressure against reporting the deluge of daily abuses. Female migrants are also vulnerable to sexual violence. The extent of such violence is difficult to quantify, given the myriad pressures against reporting. At the height of the #metoo movement in 2017, a Human Rights Watch reporter wrote about a woman who narrowly escaped her employer’s home upon being sexually assaulted. She was then tracked down by the police, who issued her a fine for breaking her visa contract by leaving her place of work.
The onset of the COVID-19 epidemic has added to the extreme pressure on migrant laborers. The packed labor villages make social distancing impossible, raising fear of the coronavirus spreading. Migrant laborers have almost no access to health care, compounding this risk. Saudi Arabia reported that 53 percent of its COVID-19 cases were among foreigners. The Qatari and Saudi governments both forced tens of thousands of laborers to quarantine in these labor camps to contain the risk within the camp, erasing their sole sources of income. Migrants are therefore earning zero wages, are at high risk of becoming sick, and have no option to leave. A restaurant worker in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, said, “'I’m not afraid of corona. I’m afraid we’ll die from hunger.” Furthermore, xenophobia has been on the rise among Gulf citizens, creating yet another risk for migrant laborers. A Kuwaiti actress said on TV that migrants should be “thrown into the desert” to save hospital beds for citizens.
While some of these heightened risks will likely fade when the threat from COVID-19 lessens, some of these trends will outlast the pandemic. As oil prices tanked, millions of Saudi Arabian citizens had to seek work typically occupied by the now-shunned migrant laborers. The influx of Gulf state nationals into the blue-collar work force will create another pressure on migrant laborers and will likely drive wages even further down. Likewise, the tourism industry has been decimated by COVID-19 travel restrictions. As many of the job opportunities for migrants grew out of construction booms, the downturn in tourism will create even fewer work opportunities.
The confluence of all of these strains has led to increased pressure from citizens of Gulf states to reevaluate the labor dynamic. Just as the United States saw a renewed appreciation for essential workers during its lockdown, many Gulf state citizens have pointed to the extreme duress of migrant laborers during the pandemic. Given that migrants have long endured miserable conditions because they were earning wages, however small, this period of zero income will likely change the power dynamic. For the first time in generations, many migrants could stand to earn more by returning to their home states.
The image used in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. No changes were made to the original image, which was taken by Alex Sergeev and can be found here.