Contagion or starvation: a dilemma facing 2 billion workers, says ILO

Laborers during their midday break at a construction site in Dubai, in 2014. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Covid-19 lockdown measures may lead to increased social tensions among two billion informal economy workers at serious risk of livelihood loss, according to the Geneva-based International Labour Organization (ILO). Accounting for half of the global labour force, «they face an almost unsolvable dilemma: die from hunger or from the virus», says a new report. We spoke about the situation with Ryszard Cholewinski, Senior Migration Specialist at ILO’s Office for Arab States in Beirut. There are 20 million migrant workers in Gulf countries.

Contagion or starvation, is it really the dilemma for migrant workers in the Gulf?

In the Gulf, Covid-19 is disproportionally affecting migrant worker. And in times of crises, migrant workers are first to be laid-off or to suffer a deterioration in their working conditions. This is generally true in sectors such as construction, hospitality, and domestic work, as well as workers in small and medium-size enterprises, and day workers or freelancers.

What has made their situation so bad now?

The issue of limited protections and decent work for migrant workers in the region is not new, but the lockdowns, travel restrictions, and closing down of airports has exacerbated their situation. There are some very large communities in Gulf countries like Indian nationals, who form the majority of workers in Kuwait, with significant numbers also in the UAE, and Ethiopian women domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. Managing large scale returns for countries like India, which has itself been in a very rigid lockdown, or Ethiopia will be challenging. Some countries of origin would prefer if their nationals could sit the crisis out in the Gulf rather than return home.

What are you aware of?

In some cases, travel restrictions have trapped migrants in countries of destination with few options to return home. Layoffs of migrant workers not only often leads to loss of income but also to the expiration of residence visas or work permits, putting migrants into irregular status. Some countries have responded positively by extending migrant visas, adopting amnesties or taking other steps to alleviate constraints faced by migrant workers and their families, such as Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) or Kuwait. Normally, if you overstay your visa in the Gulf, you are subject to financial penalties, which you need to pay before you can leave the country. In Kuwait, an estimated 160’000 migrant workers are eligible to apply for an amnesty programme. The government is organizing free flights back home for eligible workers. Some of these flights have already taken place, to the Philippines for example.

What is the pandemic underlining?

The pandemic shows that certain aspects of the governance of migration, and particularly the sponsorship system, which remains in place across much of the region, need further attention, even though steps have been taken to reform it or even dismantle it, like in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain. It is a system that puts too much power in the hand of employers. Another issue is that many migrant workers in irregular status have left their employers who continue to hold their passports – which is against the law. They can’t fly back home if their consulates do not issue the travel documents.

Is there discrimination in Covid-19 testing and treatment?

There have been a number of high-level announcements of free testing and treatment for all those suspected of being infected with the virus, including migrant workers and those who are in an irregular situation. Despite this, we need to be aware that undocumented migrants and those with an irregular status have an innate fear of approaching the authorities.They may still not come forward due to fear of arrest, detention or deportation.

What are the economic consequences for the workers?

Loss of income is resulting in a significant reduction in money sent home by migrant workers, with remittances expected to decrease by almost US$ 110 billion this year, a fall of 20 percent, according to the World Bank. From our perspective, it’s not just a question of addressing the humanitarian situation of these people, which is dire in many cases, and assisting those who wish to return home. They are often excluded from national Covid-19 policy responses, such as wage subsidies, unemployment benefits or other social protection measures. And they are also at risk of not receiving their end-of-service entitlements – normally a month’s salary for every year worked – a cushion of money they can bring back home.