You have reached the main content

GCC Covid-19 policies need to better protect migrant workers from infections and other related vulnerabilities

On March 23, 2020
This post will be regularly updated with new and relevant information including the resources table at the bottom

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have taken a number of measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 and offset the economic impact of the pandemic. This brief reviews some of the measures and policies that impact lower-income migrant workers directly and provides links to official resources for residents. A non-comprehensive set of recommendations for non-discriminatory policies to better protect both foreign workers and nationals in the Gulf are noted where applicable.  

Migrant-Rights.org recognises that in times of crisis, strict measures are required to protect the health of the entire population. However, it is equally important to consider how both these contemporary measures and decades-old policies of marginalisation make lower-income workers particularly vulnerable in these situations and to revisit them post-haste.

Domestic Workers 

Live-out domestic work, though common, is not legally recognised in most Gulf states (with the exception of cleaning company workers, some Flexi-permit holders in Bahrain and through Tadbeer centres in the UAE). Gulf states now consider live-out domestic workers a high-risk group because they work in several homes and interact with many people. They are also vulnerable because many are irregular workers who do not have access to health services.

These workers should be included in the government’s relief work. GCC states should also clearly communicate that all workers regardless of their legal status can avail of medical services without fear of detention or deportation.

  • Kuwait called on employers to stop hiring live-out domestic workers. Kuwait’s Interior Ministry called on the public to report part-time domestic workers to authorities and confirmed that 10 live-out domestic workers have been detained and referred to a medical examination.
  • Meanwhile, recruitment of live-in domestic workers remains at a complete standstill since Kuwait closed down the airport. The Kuwait Federation of Owners of Domestic Worker Officers reported that there have been no new hiring requests, even though the month of Ramadan is approaching.
  • Bahraini MP Masoumeh Abdel-Rahim put forward a proposal to restrict hourly domestic work, adding that every such worker must have a medical examination certificate confirming they do not have the virus.  Cleaning companies and recruitment offices would be responsible for providing daily health examinations for workers before they are dispatched. 

Legality, however, also does not ensure protection. Documented live-in domestic workers continue to be isolated, and can only be accessed through their employers. Though there are cases of domestic workers who have tested positive for COVID-10, there has been no messaging targeting the group, nor advice and guidance to employers. Domestic workers already endure long working hours, often without a weekly day off, and exposed to side effects of strong chemical cleaners. Their vulnerability is likely to be further aggravated as homes are more extensively cleaned because of the virus. 

GCC governments should require employers to provide workers with protective gear both for cleaning and while taking care of the elderly and children. They should also reiterate the need to stick to prescribed hours of work and a weekly off day, even if it cannot be spent outside of the home under these circumstances. 

Work and residency permits

Incoming travel bans in several countries include non-nationals with valid residency permits. Lower-income workers in particular who have been prevented from returning have been acutely affected as they are now stranded for an indefinite period of time, without wages. GCC states should assist visa holders in either safely re-entering the country or returning to their home countries, according to the individual’s preference. 

All foreign residents should also be allowed to extend their visas and overstay fines should be waived. Those whose visas expire while away from the country should be allowed reentry without penalty once this crisis eases. 

  • The UAE has banned the entry of all visa holders who are currently abroad and instructed them to contact UAE diplomatic missions in their home countries. The ban is effective for a renewable period of two weeks. 
    • The UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MOFAIC) launched a new service to facilitate the return of foreigners who hold valid visas to the UAE.
  • The UAE also suspended the issuance of all work-permits including for domestic workers from March 19th until further notice. All pre-approved permits for foreign workers and residents have also been cancelled, leaving many foreigners stranded in airports. The suspension exempts intra-corporate transfers and EXPO 2020 permits.  
  • Bahrain’s LMRA no longer allows employers access services in person, with the exception of new applications for domestic workers and absence of work (absconding) notifications. 
  • Saudi announced a three-month exemption from expat levies (paid by employers) and is allowing employers to extend exit and re-entry visas free of charge for three months. 
  • Migrants living in Oman can renew their resident card without the mandatory medical examination for a period of one month starting Thursday, 19 March 2020.
  • Qatar has also stopped the re-entry of those with residency permits and has announced that when the ban is lifted, those with expired visas would be allowed reentry. 

Wage protection and financial relief

Non-payment of wages during economic downturns is a significant issue across all Gulf states, and governments have not shown any effective commitment in the past to curtail the ripple effect on migrant workers or to punish employers who default on payments. In light of the current large scale lockdown and work restrictions, governments have announced financial support for local businesses and nationals, but there have been no commitments to specifically protect migrant worker’s wages and financial rights except in Qatar.*  The situation is likely to only worsen as construction companies and other businesses across the region shutter

Governments should explore ways of easing the financial burden of lower-income workers who have been stranded within their country without jobs. Courts should also review and expedite pending cases of non-payment.

  • Migrant workers are not included in Bahrain’s scheme to cover the wages of 100,000 private-sector employees. They are, however, included in the electricity and water bill suspensions announced as part of the BD4.3 billion economic stimulus package. 
    • In Bahrain, Flexi-permit holders face a particular vulnerability as their job opportunities dry out, and they are responsible for their own food and housing expenses. There has also been no indication that the government will freeze the high fees Flexi-permit holders pay. 
  • Qatar announced QR75 billion in support to local businesses, including waiving rentals and utility fees. Qatar Chamber of Commerce and Industry vice-chairman Rashid Hamad Al Athbah recognised that the support “will be of great help and relief for companies who have to pay salaries for staff, rents for the shops…”
    • *Update April 1, 2020: Qatar announces QR 3 billion loan scheme to pay the salaries of workers and rents of the employers, and mandates that quarantines workers receive their salary in full.
  • Saudi introduced a USD32 billion package to support businesses, including suspension of sponsor-related costs.

Curfew, quarantines & travel

Some countries have quarantined areas populated by low-income migrants and stopped public transit, effectively restricting the movement of low-income workers. While social distancing and related efforts to contain the virus are critical, isolating workers in labour camps and other crowded accommodations puts workers themselves at further risk. Any such policies need to address hygiene in accommodations and be communicated clearly to workers to avoid causing panic. 

  • Qatar has closed part of the industrial area that starts from Street No. 1 to Street No. 32, for two weeks from 17th  March, after identifying persons who tested positive and had contact with those in the area.
  • Qatar is also naming those who break quarantine. So far those named have all been Qataris. Officials said this was to enable those who had been in contact with them to report for testing. 
    • There are also reports that workers were deported for ‘disobeying curfew’.
  • Kuwait has imposed a nationwide curfew from 5 pm to 4 am as a measure to contain the Covid-19 virus. Kuwait has also decided to shut down all shop and markets, except for food stores. Kuwait’s interior minister reported that expats who do not comply with measures to contain COVID-19 could be deported. At least 9 workers have been arrested so far. 
  • Kuwait has also announced that it has allocated temporary accommodation for about 25,000 migrant workers who work for companies contracted with the Ministry of Health to ensure they do not interact with others. 
  • Saudi Arabia has stopped all domestic flights, buses, taxis and trains for 14 days beginning on 21st March, All persons coming from abroad must also self-isolate for 14 days.
  • Bahraini banned gatherings of more than five people. Bahrain is also considering a proposal to impose a curfew from 6 pm until 5 am to ensure people remain at home outside of usual work hours.  It is unclear how the many migrants who work outside of those hours will be affected. 
  • Oman has closed all public transport of buses,  Only Omanis are allowed to enter the sultanate and they are also not allowed to leave. Oman has also recently issued a decision to prevent the gatherings of all kinds in public places.
  • Saudi Arabia imposed a curfew from 7 pm to 6 am starting on March 23 for three weeks.

Detention and Deportation

Some Gulf states have begun to release detainees for repatriation or expedite deportations to contain the spread of the virus. Migrants face indefinite administrative detention and deportation for visa violations across the region. In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, detention conditions for migrants are notoriously overcrowded and unhygienic. 

States should take steps to sanitise detention centres, release administrative violators to reduce overcrowding and facilitate their travel home, and ensure all prisoners are tested before being sent home.

Resources

Please submit any resources not listed below to: [email protected]

GCC Country Resources
Bahrain

Recommended response for workplace guidelines with regards to Coronavirus COVID-19Home Quarantine and Disinfection Guidelines

Infographic about self-isolation and Coronavirus instructions and hotline in 11 languages

Covid-19 contingency plan for containment when visiting primary healthcare 

Covid-19 emergency number: 444

Call for Volunteers:

https://volunteer.gov.bh/COVID19.html (Arabic) 

Migrant Workers Protection Society (MWPS) 

[email protected]

 +973 17827895

Saudi Arabia

COVID-19 Awareness Guidelines in 7 languages by the Ministry of Health

Covid-19 emergency number: 937

Qatar

Covid-19 Helpline: 2345132, 92727 (worker's hotline) 

Videos in multiple languages from doctors: 

https://twitter.com/mophqatar

Call for volunteers: 

https://www.moph.gov.qa/english/mediacenter/News/Pages/NewsDetails.aspx?ItemId=108

UAE

Coronavirus (COVID 19) Awareness materials by the Ministry of Health and PreventionNCEMA leaflet instructions for coronavirus

Covid-19 Hotlines: 

  • "Estijaba" service: 8001717
  • Ministry of Health & Prevention: 80011111
  • Dubai Health Authority: 800342

Hotline to help holders of valid residence permits abroad: +97192083344

Oman

Official website:

https://www.moh.gov.om/en/corona

Covid-19 Hotline:

Kuwait

Official Website:https://corona.e.gov.kw/En/

Covid-19 Hotlines:

  • 151

Translations of Kuwait’s official policies in several languages:

https://twitter.com/translateforq8