Migrant workers facing dire situation in Gulf countries amid coronavirus

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NEW YORK O il-rich countries in the Persian Gulf re gion have locked down over-crowded labour camps and areas with large populations of low-wage workers in an attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving migrant workers stranded and jobless, according to media reports. Here is how The New York Times described the situation: Qatar has locked down tens of thousands of migrant workers in a crowded neighbourhood, raising fears it will become a coronavirus hotbed. Companies in Saudi Arabia have told foreign labourers to stay home — then stopped paying them. In Kuwait, an actress said on TV that migrants should be thrown out ‘into the desert’. “Many people are infected and are staying with other people”, Krishna Kumar, the president of the UAE-based Kerala Social Center, was quoted as saying in a Reuters’ report from Dubai. “We are trying to isolate them”. Despite measures being taken to contain the spread of coronavirus, such as suspending passenger flights, closing most public venues, and imposing curfews, the number of coronavirus cases in the Arab states has been rising, the report said. Doctors in the UAE, who spoke with the British news agency on the condition of anonymity, said overcrowding is one of the biggest factors for the surge in cases. The New York Times dispatch, while noting that Gulf countries have long relied on armies of low-paid migrant workers from Asia, Africa and elsewhere to do the heavy lifting in their economies, they have also faced longstanding criticism from rights groups for treating those labourers poorly. “Now, the coronavirus pandemic has made matters worse, as migrants in Gulf States have found themselves locked down in cramped, unsanitary dorms, deprived of income and unable to return home because of travel restrictions,” Times correspondent Ben Hubbard wrote. “Some are running out of food and money and fear they have no place to turn in societies that often treat them like an expendable underclass.” “Nobody called us”, Mohamed al-Sayid, an Egyptian restaurant worker, was quoted as saying. He said he was stuck with seven friends in a one-room apartment in Jeddah, after they lost their jobs. “Nobody checked on us at all. I am not afraid of corona. I am afraid we all die from hunger.” Noting that lockdowns and the resulting economic downturns have dealt harsh blows to migrant communities across the globe, including in Southeast Asia and inside India, the Times said the sheer numbers and diversity of migrants in Persian Gulf countries mean that damage to their health and finances will echo across continents. “It is hard to overstate the role of migrant labour in the Gulf, where jobs in construction, sanitation, transportation, hospitality and even health care are dominated by millions of workers from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, the Philippines and elsewhere,” the Times said. “They often work and live in substandard conditions to earn more than they could at home.” As the virus has spread, Gulf countries have imposed lockdowns and other restrictions aimed at limiting contagion that have dramatically slowed their economies, it was pointed out. “Many of these losses have trickled down to the laborers,” the dispatch said, adding, “Some earn as little as $200 per month, and many amassed substantial debts to recruiters and middlemen before they had even begun working. “Lost income will not only affect the workers, but also their home countries, which receive billions of dollars in remittances every year. “Also, there are indications that the virus has hit migrants particularly hard. Saudi Arabia’s health ministry said on April 5 that more than half of its cases of Covid-19, the disease the virus causes, were foreigners. The kingdom has reported more than 4,000 cases. “Qatar, in the midst of a construction boom to prepare to be host of the World Cup in 2022, found hundreds of cases in an industrial zone where many migrants live. The government said it had isolated the infected for treatment and locked the area down, creating fears the virus would continue to spread inside the isolated area.” “There is this innate discrimination in the system itself which is suddenly not going to disappear,” Vani Saraswathi, associate editor of Migrant-Rights.org, an advocacy group, was quoted as saying by the Times. “It is going to get more stark as this crisis keeps growing.” Advocates for workers say measures the Gulf governments have announced to shore up their economies and slow the virus’s spread do not do enough to protect labourers. “There seems to be a disconnect in these countries about how much they need these workers,” Ms. Saraswathi said. “Their societies would literally fall apart if these workers were not there, but there is very little empathy for their situation.” Although Gulf governments have issued strict stay-at-home orders and closed businesses deemed nonessential, some migrant-heavy sectors, like construction and oil and gas, have kept working, potentially exposing workers to the virus, the Times said, adding that many labourers also live in camps where as many as 10 men share rooms, a fertile environment for contagion. “If it spreads in the camps, it is wildfire, so all of these countries should have an interest in keeping this under control,” said Hiba Zayadin, a Gulf researcher for Human Rights Watch, was quoted as saying. Gulf countries have banned unionization and other activism aimed at improving workers conditions, leaving labourers with few places to turn if their employers violate their contracts or fail to pay them. “We can’t go out because the police are very strict,” Islamuddin Iqbal, a Pakistani day labourer in Oman, told the Times. He has been stuck in a room with four other men for more than a month. The men used to venture out to buy bread, but the bakery closed, so they are left with only the rice in their room. “Our supplies are running out fast,” Iqbal told the Times correspondent by phone. “We have started to eat less, to save what we are left with.”—APP

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