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Gulf States: migrant workers in need

India is gearing up for the largest repatriation of its citizens ever. At least 190,000 Indians are to be brought back home with government aid. Probably, however, announced the Minister for Civil Aviation, Hardeep Puri, that it will be many times higher.

One of the focal points of the return campaign should be the Gulf States. Until the outbreak of the Corona crisis, millions of Indians had hired themselves as cheap workers on the Arabian Peninsula. But they had lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. Many of the visas issued have now expired.

With this campaign, India is reacting to the disastrous circumstances under which many of the Indian guest workers - as well as those from other Asian countries such as Pakistan and Nepal - have been living on the Gulf Peninsula since the virus broke out. There, the pandemic-related closure of many companies in the region hit low-income migrant workers particularly hard.

Legal pressure on migrants

The governments of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have promised to make up for any loss of wages for their own nationals. Most foreign workers - in some Gulf states they make up 95 percent of the workforce - cannot hope for such support.

On the contrary: in some countries they now have to adjust to an even more difficult situation. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), for example, changed their labor legislation specifically to allow companies to terminate the employment contracts of foreigners and to restructure contracts. On this basis, they can now lower their wages and urge workers to take unpaid leave.

A migrant worker in his accommodation in Qatar (photo from 2012)

"The situation is very bad. Many of my friends and employees in my company have lost their jobs," said Tanveer Abbas, an electrician from Pakistan, in an interview with DW. He is currently on leave from his job with a construction company in the Emirates - unpaid.

Abbas' boss advised him to just wait and see. But he needs the money, says Abbas. Because his family in Pakistan is dependent on his transfers. If they did not happen, the family could no longer buy anything.

World Bank warning

Last week, the World Bank warned of the consequences of the pandemic for guest workers and their families. The shutdown of so many businesses caused the sharpest drop in remittances in recent history. The elimination of transfers means the loss of "a crucial financial lifeline" for many households at risk.

But the migrant workers still face other problems: They are now unemployed but still have to pay rent. This leaves them nothing but the attempt to travel home on their own. Only Kuwait has announced that it will allow all workers whose visas have expired to travel home at state expense.

High health risk

However, those guest workers who have to stay due to a lack of financial resources are often exposed to high health risks due to the local living conditions. Human rights groups have highlighted the dangers of overcrowded accommodation for foreign workers. The spatial distancing required in times of epidemic is impossible there. The mostly cramped conditions for guest workers are in sharp contrast to the conditions under which the majority of the local population lives in the affluent Gulf nations.

Abbas, however, was luckier than others: he sleeps in a house with five rooms that he shares with four colleagues.

The living conditions of the guest workers who built the infrastructure in Qatar for the football World Cup in 2022 had attracted worldwide attention. In the accommodations in the industrial area of ​​Doha - a large number of migrant workers are housed there - many of them live with eight to ten people in one room. There is hardly any running water and hardly any hygiene facilities.

Human rights groups protest

When it became known at the beginning of the corona pandemic that some of the migrant workers had also become infected, parts of the industrial area were completely cordoned off. The workers were only allowed to go to work by bus. Human rights groups condemned these conditions.

In response, the Qatari government announced new measures: The rooms would be limited to four people. New hygiene facilities would be created to guarantee medical care for the sick. According to a government website, access to the workplaces will be staggered and only half of the current passengers will be carried on the buses.

Racist comments

But the pandemic has not only exacerbated the precarious economic and working conditions of foreign workers. At the same time, it fueled the racist discourse throughout the region.

In March, for example, the Kuwaiti MP Safaa al-Hashem demanded the deportation of foreign workers whose visas had expired. In this way, the country can be "cleansed" of the risk that migrants pose to the transmission of the virus. The human rights group made comparable statements according to also in the social media in Bahrain.

In both countries, such statements were met with opposition from celebrities and academics. The Bahraini scientist Wafa al-Sayed condemned the total neglect of "a social group that built our country and made our lifestyle more luxurious".

Particularly at risk: female migrants

However, the outbreak of the virus does not only affect male guest workers. It also increases the vulnerability of migrant women who live as maids and cleaning women in the Gulf States.

They are even more at risk than the men. Because some employers locked them up and prevented them from leaving their workplaces, says Joanna Concepción, head of the Filipino advocacy group Migrants International.

Migrant workers wait in front of a medical facility in Al Quoz near Dubai (UAE)

In addition, the pandemic has meant that the agencies that support foreign workers in the Gulf region are now understaffed, Concepción told DW. "There have been very limited responses to attempts to rescue migrant women who have been victims of rape and physical abuse."

All of these factors affect foreign workers to such an extent that the number of suicides among their ranks has increased. In Kuwait alone, there have been nine cases and four suicide attempts in the past four weeks, according to the online portal Al-Rai.

Worries in Pakistan

Pakistan has also already brought numerous workers home. There is now concern about the comparatively high infection rate among returned workers from the United Arab Emirates.

Moeed Yusuf, who advises the Pakistani Prime Minister on national security issues, told Reuters recently that the number of people who returned from the UAE and tested positive was "higher than we had hoped".

On most flights, around twelve percent of returnees tested positive. However, on some flights that number rose to 40 to 50 percent. "The assumption is that many of the workers live in overcrowded dormitories where it is easier to infect one another," Yussuf told Reuters.

"It's risky living together," one worker who didn't want his name published told Reuters. "The situation with COVID-19 is currently not good for us."