The treatment of migrant workers in the Arab Gulf who constitute approximately 80-90 per cent of the labour market in Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain, and upwards 60 percent in Saudi Arabia and Oman has escaped international scrutiny. This social stratification of nationals and non-nationals has remained prevalent over the years, however, it has worsened during this pandemic.
Lavanya Kathiravelu writes in her book ‘Migrant Dubai’, “social distancing is already institutionalized in the Gulf; low-income workers from the Global South do the dirty and demeaning work, while physically and financially isolated from the modern societies they make possible”. Without proper controls in place, employers are taking advantage of mass repatriation programs to terminate and return workers who have not been paid their due compensation, wages, and benefits.
During this pandemic, the workers are being given two options either to leave or to work at a slashed minimal wage. In some parts of the Gulf, the workers have been abandoned by their companies and are out of money and food, and have no way to return back to their home countries.
When the removed workers file for repatriation, they are not given enough time to find a legal remedy for their loss. The living conditions of these workers is no better; according to a report by a leading news organization, these workers are restricted to compounds, which are considered as hotbeds for this pandemic.
Irrespective of this pandemic, wage theft in the gulf has been practiced for years now. These workers work under the Kafla system. The Kafla System is a sponsorship system, where each migrant worker is tied to an employee, and this employee has complete control over their legal residency.
This leads to the migrants working under poor conditions and also increases the chances of wage thefts. For decades, oil-rich gulf countries have largely relied on migrant labourers to build their economies. However, the gulf has a temporary migration regime that works in their favour during times of crisis like these and leaves the workers abandoned.
The workers with no assistance from the state have to depend on diaspora associations for relief. The contented conditions in which the migrants are working in has necessitated the creation of a transitional justice mechanism. In this way, the workers with legitimate claims can be given a proper legal mechanism and a platform to get justice and compensation for their losses.
Migrants should be given access to legal advice to help them with their cases. A kosher system should be set up where the main focus of the workers’ support programs should be facilitating power of attorney procedures, easing requirements for in-person testimony. The pandemic shouldn’t be an opportunity for the employees to exploit the migrant workers.
Instead, it should be an opportunity to address loops in the system. International attention and pressure will help in improving the situation in which over thirty million workers are living in terrible conditions, wholly at odds with the wealth and luxury of the country they have helped build.