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Decades of migration mismanagement has Saudi scampering to contain the spread

On April 22, 2020

Saudi Arabia is repurposing empty schools and building makeshift camps to house migrant workers away from their overcrowded accommodation,  as the government steps up its effort to fight the coronavirus.  

As of 19 April, non-citizens have accounted for every four out of five deaths. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said the rise in the number of confirmed cases in recent days was, in part, due to proactive field-testing in overcrowded workers’ housing areas. However, the ministry also acknowledged that overcrowding is a major obstacle in the government’s efforts to stop the spread of infection. Efforts to address the long-standing reality of workers’ living conditions are now in the works, alongside strict quarantine measures in migrant neighbourhoods. These policies may produce results in the long run if efforts are consistent. But the measures lack sensitivity and further marginalise the country’s six million migrants, more than half of whom are from South Asia. 

A long-overdue response to overcrowding

On 14 April, the Saudi Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs (MOMRA) established a committee to oversee workers’ accommodation as part of the Covid19 response. Its first act was to expand the rarely-enforced “Health and Safety Rules for Workers’ Accommodation” procedures to include social distancing practices and strict sterilisation rules. In addition to regular temperature checks, workers and their clothes will now have to be disinfected every time they enter or leave their housing facility. The expanded rules also call for a designated quarantine area for workers who exhibit symptoms. Employers must provide sanitisers, disinfectants, gloves and masks for workers to use indoors and outdoors. 

It’s unclear how the new committee will enforce these rules. A version of the rules has existed since the early 2000s but was not properly enforced. It will take considerable time to improve accommodation conditions and alleviate overcrowding, assuming that these measures are properly and consistently implemented.  Despite around 650 inspection visits, no employer or real estate owner has been penalized in relation to overcrowding or violating the MOMRA rules yet. 

Workers’ housing is based on the size of the business, work location, nature of the work and the contractual obligation between worker and employer. Large construction companies and factories may place workers in labour camps or housing complexes near their work sites. City cleaning and maintenance crews are provided dormitories. A small business owner employing 10 workers might house them in a rented apartment or small house in a low-income area. Farmworkers, guards or site janitors are often offered a room at the workplace itself. Additionally, many low- to mid-income migrant workers, mainly men, share affordable rooms and apartments, in less expensive areas of large cities. All of these places fall under MOMRA’s purview. 

In parallel to enforcing the housing rules, the MOMRA committee oversees efforts to repurpose empty buildings to rehouse workers from overcrowded areas. The committee requested owners of empty buildings to disclose their properties on an online portal and to indicate their willingness to donate or rent them to the government. Jeddah, Dammam, al-Baha, Skaka and other smaller towns have already begun rehousing workers in unused school buildings. Other cities are expected to follow suit soon. Proposals to have factories house their workers on their premises are also underway.

Local governments have also put significant, albeit disorganised, resources into tackling overcrowded housing as part of the fight against the virus. In mid-March, municipality staff across the country began checking on workers’ housing, assessing overcrowded areas, distributing sanitisers and PPE, and spreading awareness among workers about the disease and some basic rules of proper hygiene. Through the end of March and well into April, local governments in the Asir and Eastern provinces created task forces to oversee the situation. Because most did not have accurate information about the number of housing sites in their jurisdiction, they encouraged businesses to submit information about the location. 

It is unclear how many workers will be rehoused in total. At the time of this report, thousands of workers have been moved to school buildings or temporary labour camps. Some seem to be employees of local government contractors who operate cleaning, construction and maintenance crew. 

Inspection drives have increased but remain insufficient. The mammoth task of checking on long-neglected housing conditions is not only time-consuming but also requires a large number of trained inspectors. Announcements on closures and inspections are often ad-hoc and lack transparent data. Reports on the shut down of a labour camp in Jazan, or the many violations undercovered during an inspection of 180 housing sites, or temperature checks of 55,000 workers in the Jeddah municipality,  fail to tell the whole story. For example,  the testing percentage in Jeddah is a small drop in the bucket - the city is one of the most populated municipalities in Saudi with over 3.5 million residents, and has both international air and seaports. These reports also do not mention if employers received any penalties for violating the regulations.

Live and livelihoods

The measures taken centrally and executed locally is the policy story, where those inconvenienced or helped become statistics. The individual story becomes inconsequential, like that of Mohammad’s. A Bangladeshi migrant, he was forced into an irregular status after his employer refused to pay for his iqama (residency) renewal a few years ago. Since then, he’s been dependent on part-time gigs in Mecca’s religious tourism sector.

But devoid of pilgrims and under strict curfew, Mecca now has no job opportunities for him now. Since 15 March, all non-essential businesses have been shut down. By the end of March, the Ministry of Interior issued a 24-hour curfew on al-Masfala (where Mohammad lives) and many other neighbourhoods where low-income migrant workers live in Jeddah, Mecca and Madina. 

Saudi Arabia has not issued an eviction moratorium. As he lived paycheque to paycheque, Mohammad could no longer afford to stay in his overcrowded room. He told that his landlord evicted him on 15 April and confiscated all his belongings, including a mattress, a propane tank, and his bag. With nowhere to go, he stayed near a mosque until a good samaritan took him in. It was nearly impossible to find a new shelter because, in Mohammad’s words, “everybody will think we are corona suspects.” Asked if he has any food for the next few days, he said “no.” 

By 7 April, a curfew in most major cities in the country allowed only essential businesses were allowed to operate, including pharmacies, grocery stores, slaughterhouses, banks, maintenance shops, plumbing, electricity, air conditioning, water delivery services, sanitation tanks and gas stations. All of which are manned by migrants.

Barbershops and beauty parlours (by some estimates, there are over 70,000 of the latter and even more of the former in the Kingdom), businesses that almost solely employ migrant workers, are strictly forbidden to open. Several arrests of barbers giving haircuts in their homes were reported. 

Cleaning companies are still in operation. As per the MHR rules, they are only allowed to provide long-term domestic worker services (monthly or longer), as opposed to the hourly and daily services typically offered. Relatedly, the MHR has suspended Musaned since 16 March. 

Municipality contractors operating all-migrant cleaning crews have been deployed in full force in all cities and villages in the country. By 6 April, they had cleaned and sterilised 66,000 public spaces and objects, ranging from streets to sidewalks, to ATMs. In addition, they have been essential in disinfecting a large number of overcrowded workers’ accommodations. City maintenance and construction projects are ongoing with migrant workers paving roads, building parks, and maintaining public facilities.    

Farmers and livestock markets are fully operational but split into smaller ones divided among various neighbourhoods of large cities. Officials said around 16,000 temporary smaller markets have been created around the country. 

Support for Businesses

A Royal Decree provided for a 60% salary guarantee for citizens working in the private sector,  but no such support for migrant workers. The multi-billion-dollar stimulus relief package makes no mention of protecting workers’ rights or pay. Measures to reduce the impact of Covid19 focus mainly on protecting the private sector, with some support to Saudi nationals. 

The Saudi Ministry of Human Resources (MHR) enacted a new regulation on 7 April permitting employers, to furlough workers without pay, offer them leave while deducting from the annual vacation time, or reduce their hours while adjusting their pay proportionally. In theory, these steps should only be taken with workers agreement. 

A Filipina nurse working in a hospital in Khamis Mushait, told her employer reduced her shift eight hours to six and lowered her pay accordingly. No prior notice was given nor was there an agreement between workers and the employer. Labour disputes procedures are halted as labour courts and regional labour offices are temporarily closed.

The MHR also relaxed rules for Ajeer, a portal where employers report their “excess workers” so other businesses can borrow them for a period of time. While workers could previously only work in the job listed on their Residency ID, Ajeer now allows workers to switch between jobs, except for ones that require certain certification (eg., engineering or medicine). Employers are now exempt from paying the borrowing fees associated with Ajeer. The limit on the number of workers borrowed per business has also been lifted.   

Visa fees and expiration temporarily suspended

Employees whose residency IDs will expire between 18 March and 30 June can extend them online for three months, free of charge. Similarly, “exit and entry” and “final exit” visas scheduled between 25 February to 20 March 20, can be adjusted to a later date, also free of charge. Renewing Residency IDs and issuing visas are the responsibility of the employer, so are the costs associated with them. Levies collected from small businesses for hiring non-Saudi workers have been reduced or removed altogether. However, dependents’ fees are still collected from migrants.  

Relief and support

The MHR has launched several initiatives to encourage food drives and supplement food banks. In collaboration with the private sector and charity organisations, the MHR initiative distributed more than 180,000 food baskets to low-income families impacted by Covid19 in Mecca alone. Other regions and cities in the country have conducted similar operations. 

Due to the expansive impact of the virus, most charities and initiatives only provide sporadic help and tend to favour citizens first, and non-Arabic speaking migrants last. Before the 24-hour curfews, large charities like al-Bir announced that they would only help citizens. This condition has since been lifted to include anyone impacted by the forced curfew. 

Even some Arabic-speaking migrants, whose language skills enable them to navigate life easier in the Kingdom, have told MR they are worried about going hungry. An Egyptian doctor in Jeddah whose employer hasn’t paid him in months said,  “if mosques were still open, I would’ve sat outside begging for money to buy something to eat.” Two workers at an aluminium factory in Mecca, who also haven’t been paid since August 2019, told MR they were also worried about their dwindling food supplies.

With the start of Ramadan and the onset of brutal Gulf summers, this situation will be exacerbated. The Kingdom will have to face the question of survival for an increasing number of migrants affected by the fallout of Covid19.