A year of battling COVID-19: Pandemic exacerbated an already grim reality for migrant workers in the Gulf
- 273 public allegations of labour abuse were recorded in the year since COVID-19 arrived in the Gulf, up three-fold from 84 the previous year.
- The United Arab Emirates accounted for the largest proportion of labour abuse allegations (39%), while World Cup 2022 host Qatar made up nearly a third (32%).
- Allegations of labour abuse in Saudi Arabia spiked by 820%, with 49 cases reported during the pandemic, compared with just six cases in the previous year.
- Construction workers were impacted in one third of cases [32%], while hospitality workers reported abuse in 1 in 10 cases.
- Non-payment of wages was the most frequent form of abuse, occurring in 68% of cases.
- In 83% of cases, workers reported that the pandemic had caused or worsened their situation.
London, UK: Intimidation, wage theft and health and safety breaches are among the abuses inflicted upon vulnerable migrant workers in Gulf states. A stark rise in allegations since the start of the pandemic has underscored their vulnerability in a region with an unquenchable desire for cheap migrant labour. As the economy opens up, companies relying on returning migrant workers must take steps to end endemic abuse.
New analysis from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) has identified at least 273 allegations of labour abuse against migrant workers reported between March 2020 and February 2021, more than three times as many reported in the previous year. 47,991 migrant workers in Gulf states impacted by labour abuse since COVID-19 reached the region over a year ago, a figure which is just the tip of the iceberg.
All six GCC countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) saw an increase in allegations. In a year that saw the Dubai World Expo deferred to October 2021, the UAE accounts for the largest proportion at 39%, while allegations impacting workers in World Cup 2022 host Qatar make up 32% of the total. In Saudi Arabia, allegations of abuse spiked eight-fold, with 49 reported during the pandemic, compared with just six in the previous year.
Non-payment of wages was the most frequently reported abuse, occurring in over two-thirds (68%) of cases. However, reports of health and safety breaches represented the starkest increase compared with the previous year’s reporting; 110 allegations concerned dangerous working conditions, unhygienic standards in accommodation or lack of medical access for workers, an increase of 688% on the 16 made the previous year. Inhumane or precarious living conditions were reported at almost five times the rate (479% increase) as the previous year.
Construction workers were impacted in one third of cases [32%], while hospitality workers reported abuse in 1 in 10 cases. Transport, cleaning and maintenance, and security and logistics workers were also most impacted.
In one in five (48) cases workers were burdened by loans taken to fund their recruitment and may have taken further loans to fill gaps caused by wage delays during the pandemic. In only 40 cases did workers report that they had successfully filed complaints through official channels, with only nine reports of those being awarded to the worker with successful (or unknown) outcomes, underlining the important role of company grievance and remedy mechanisms where access to justice through official channels is ineffective.
Isobel Archer, Gulf Programme Manager, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, said: “COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on working and living conditions for millions of migrants across the Gulf. While all Gulf states took steps to mitigate the economic and health impacts of the virus on workers, the high number of reported cases indicate they were insufficient to overcome decades of government inaction. The rate of reporting peaked between April and July 2020, but the pandemic remains a key concern for workers in 2021. Many continue to report living and working conditions that breach health and safety standards, as well as government COVID-19 directives.
"Reports of workers living in unsanitary and overcrowded accommodation are extremely concerning given the ongoing global pandemic and the risk to their health that comes with this. Employers have an obligation to take preventative measures to ensure the safety and well-being of the people they hire. These figures are based on allegations reported by media and NGOs and so only scratch the surface, masking the true scale of suffering.
"The Gulf countries are well into their vaccine programme roll-outs, but for many migrant workers the abusive living and working conditions remain deadly. While the world recovers from the health and economic fallout of COVID-19, and industries including hospitality, catering and leisure resume recruitment to the Gulf, COVID-19 continues to pose the greatest threat to migrant workers.”
Note to editors
Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has been tracking cases of labour abuse in the Gulf since 2016. Our Allegations Tracker records publicly reported cases of human and labour rights abuse committed by businesses against migrant workers in the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Our methodology can be found here and a discussion of the challenges and limitations of allegations tracking here.
These numbers are based on publicly reported allegations of labour rights abuse against migrant workers in the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE), in which businesses are implicated. The actual numbers of incidents of abuse and affected migrant workers are believed to be higher.
About the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre
Business & Human Rights Resource Centre is an international NGO that tracks the human rights impacts (positive and negative) of more than 10,000 companies across nearly 200 countries. We seek responses from companies when concerns are raised by civil society.
Media contact: Priyanka Mogul (London-based), Media Officer, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, +44 (0) 7880 956239, [email protected]