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Opinion

COVID-19: Spike in allegations of labour abuse against migrant workers in the Gulf

Balconies of condominium building inhabited by migrant workers, Deira district, Dubai

Since January 2016, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has tracked public allegations of labour abuse against migrant workers in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar & the UAE. During the COVID-19 crisis we have seen a 275% increase in allegations of abuse. Here, we explore the trends of abuse we are recording against migrant workers’ living in the Gulf.

It was clear from the start that the COVID-19 pandemic would not be the “great leveller”. Quite the opposite, several demographics - women, people with disabilities, precarious workers – have been disproportionately, negatively affected by both the health and economic impacts of the virus. Migrant workers globally are recognized as especially vulnerable to COVID-19; they often lack adequate access to public health information, medical care or the financial aid given to citizens.

In the Gulf many migrant workers are subject to the “Kafala” system which gives employers huge control over their lives. Workers need employers’ permission to change jobs, and are often reliant on them for food, accommodation and their visas.

The rate at which we have tracked abuse against migrants in the Gulf has seen a huge spike. Between April and August 2020, we recorded 80 reports of labour abuse; this makes up 35% of the total number of cases we’ve recorded since January 2016 and represents a 275% increase on the same period during 2019.

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Where were cases of abuse being reported?

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COVID-19 has been devastating for the Gulf’s 30+ million migrant workers; workers cited COVID-19 as a key or worsening factor in 95% cases.

Some governments did act in March and April to order employers to protect wages, implement workplace health and safety measures, and provide food and accommodation for workers.

Yet, months later, thousands remain stranded without medical care or food in some of the world’s richest nations. For some, the pandemic closed courts already facing a backlog of cases and further delayed workers’ access to justice.

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What abuse are workers reporting?

Wages & benefits

In April, while companies in Qatar and the UAE were keen to demonstrate to the Resource Centre the steps they had taken to slow the spread of COVID-19 among their workforce and provide medical aid, fewer were proactively safeguarding workers’ wages. Wage theft - the withholding of wages, partial payments, end-of-service payments and compensation from workers – has since become endemic across many industries.

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Gulf governments have taken steps to protect salaries, but many migrant workers are not included in financial help-schemes and companies continue to flout regulations brought in to protect workers’ wages. Companies have forced workers to accept lower salaries and conducted mass terminations, seemingly to avoid paying owed wages, and prompted an international civil society campaign for an international justice mechanism to reclaim the billions of dollars in estimated wages and benefits owed.

  • Non-payment of wages continues to be the most frequently cited abuse we track, cited in 81% cases throughout the pandemic
    • There were 65 recorded cases of non-payment of wages between April and August 2020, this is an increase of 240% when compared to the same period in 2019.

Workers who experience chronic non-payment of wages are feeling the additional burden of growing recruitment fees. While wages have stalled, workers’ debt from loans taken to cover fees, expenses or the cost of food continue to grow.

  • Workers reported they had paid recruitment fees in 11% cases, with workers in 20% cases burdened by growing debts.

Living & working conditions

  • Health and safety concerns were cited in 33% of cases
    • Between April and August 2020, health and safety concerns were cited in 26 cases, a rise of 520% compared with the same period in 2019

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  • Inadequate or inhumane living conditions were cited in 52% of cases
    • Complaints regarding living conditions were cited in 34 cases, a rise of 380% when compared to the same period in 2019
      • Cramped accommodation and the impossibility of social distancing were cited in 10 cases, reflecting the fears of civil society and workers’ rights organisations that social distancing measures have been impossible for workers to implement. Even those in regulation accommodation sleep at least four to a room, with reports of up to 72 workers sharing bathrooms.
      • In 16 cases, workers were homeless, facing eviction or had had their housing allowances stopped

  • In 39% of cases, workers reported they had insufficient access to food and were often forced to take out loans or credit to obtain it,
    • Workers reported a lack of adequate food in 31 cases between April and August 2020, a rise of 220% compared with the same period in 2019
      • Two thirds of these reports came from Qatar and the UAE, despite the governments there making mandatory the provision of food by employers
      • Unsurprisingly, charitable aid has formed a key part of the pandemic response for migrant workers, with workers dependent on social workers or donations in 20 cases.

Employer intimidation and abuse

Although the number of reports soared during these months, we’ve continued to see instances of workers intimidated, imprisoned or physically assaulted as a consequence of or deterrent to speaking out against their employers.

Verbal or physical assault of workers occurred in 18 cases, with workers facing threats from employers to continue working despite the lack of wages or to accept new contracts or be fired. Workers were also reportedly afraid to file grievances with the authorities for fear of reprisals. In four cases, workers reported being physically locked into accommodation by employers or recruitment agencies, paradoxically as both punishment and protection against COVID-19.

We also recorded as many worker protests between April and August 2020 as in the whole of 2019.

In a region where collective bargaining, unionising and protests are illegal or often repressed, workers are risking imprisonment and abuse to highlight their desperation. In one case, workers in Kuwait whose employer cut off electricity and water from their accommodation protested outside the local police station until electricity was restored by the authorities.

Company response

The Gulf has historically proven a challenging region to use our company response mechanism owing to restrictions on reporting and a lack of transparency regarding company ownership and involvement. The uptick in reporting, however, has meant a corresponding increase in the volume of outreach we conducted during the period.

Between April and August 2020, 45 companies were named in 24 allegations of labour abuse; during the same period in 2019, only 6 companies were named in just 5 cases.

We sought response from 39 companies publicly named in 18 allegations of labour abuse – from 20 companies regarding their own workers and from 19 more regarding their business relationships with them. During the same period in 2019, we had contacted only 2 companies and received responses from neither.

To date, we have received responses from 15 companies regarding just 6 of those cases.