Pandemic Borders

For migrant workers in the MENA, flattening the curve of inequality is urgent

The global COVID-19 pandemic is not the root cause of migrant exploitation, discrimination and vulnerability but it does act as a magnifying lens.

Georges Fahmi
29 June 2020
Ethiopian worker near the Ethiopian Consulate in Lebanon after being kicked out from her work
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Picture by Marwan Naamani/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved
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The challenges faced by migrant workers in the MENA region are particularly acute. Since the beginning of the crisis, news of Egyptian workers stranded in Kuwait rioting for not being able to return home, Ethiopian domestic workers fired by their employees and left in front of the Ethiopian embassy in Beirut, or Indians sleeping in the basement car park as they are unable to pay for their rent in Dubai, have been equally disturbing as the news of the victims of the virus itself.

The MENA region is one of the main destination for migrant workers. According to the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic Affairs (UNDESA), there were 35 million international migrants in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and Jordan and Lebanon in 2019, of whom 31 per cent were women. The majority of these workers are from Asia (especially from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines) and Africa (Egypt and Ethiopia in particular).

In Lebanon, over 250,000 migrant women are employed by private households to carry out household tasks. Jordan has between 440,000 to 540,000 unskilled and semi-skilled migrant workers employed mainly in domestic work, agriculture and construction. The six countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar – host the majority of migrant workers living in the Arab region. Foreign workers make up 90% of the population of the United Arab Emirates, 60% in Kuwait, 50% in Bahrain, and 33% in Saudi Arabia.

COVID-19 has not created, but it has unveiled the conditions under which migrant workers in Arab countries live

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates host respectively the third and fifth largest migrant populations in the world. These are mostly low-skilled migrants employed in construction or hospitality sectors, or work as domestic workers.

COVID-19 has not created, but it has unveiled the conditions under which migrant workers in Arab countries live. The pandemic has unveiled two sides of their suffering: racism and socio-economic inequalities.

Panic and fear of the COVID-19 virus has increased already existing racist attitudes against migrant workers. This is the case for example of one famous Kuwaiti actress who asked her government to “send [expatriates] out... put them in the desert” to make room in hospitals for citizens who may get infected with the virus.

Economically, the pandemic has highlighted the unjust working conditions of migrant workers in the region. GCC states, Lebanon and Jordan operate different versions of the kafala sponsorship system, a labor-sponsorship program that generally carries a large set of discriminatory policies which ties the workers’ legal right to be in the country to their contracts. The International Labour Organization (ILO) committee responsible for evaluating the state of application of international labor standards, has noted that “the kafala system may be conducive to the exaction of forced labour and has requested that the governments concerned protect migrant workers from abusive practices”. These practices include unpaid wages, forced labour, dangerous working conditions and unsanitary accommodation facilities.

However, if there is one positive message of the COVID-19 crisis is that these inequalities have put everyone at risk, not only migrant workers. Lack of healthcare services, dangerous working conditions and unsanitary accommodation facilities threaten the whole society.

The pandemic has also been an opportunity to rethink the unequal working conditions of migrant workers. Some Arab governments have tried to introduce some measures to address such risks. The Lebanese government has committed to offering free testing for COVID-19 to residents and citizens. The Saudi king has ordered free treatment be provided to all coronavirus patients in all government and private health facilities including citizens and residents - even those in violation of residency laws. Some governments have announced measures to alleviate financial risks for some workers, as is the case with the Qatari government which has asked the employers to pay all workers who are isolated or quarantined, their basic salary and allowances regardless of whether they are entitled to sick leave or not.

This crisis could be an opportunity for structural change, not only temporarily emergency measures

This crisis can push the debate about migrant rights, racism and descrimination in the post COVID-19 era. The fear of the pandemic could lead to a discussion about how to protect the society as a whole.

COVID-19 has shown that it is in the interest of citizens themselves that migrant workers have the right to healthcare, adequate housing, social security and just working conditions. This crisis could be an opportunity for structural change, not only temporarily emergency measures. While discrimination and inequality could have been ignored before COVID-19, the pandemic has made addressing them an urgent matter for the benefit of both residents and citizens alike.

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