One of the first photos associated with coronavirus in the Gulf featured a despondent South Asian employee of the Saudi oil giant, Aramco, forced to dress-up as a life-sized sanitiser dispenser. The photos drew fierce criticism online, forcing the company to apologise. But, long before the photos became public, the idea was conceptualised and approved, the cardboard cutout assembled to design, a worker selected for the task and ordered to walk the company’s halls. Then, higher-income employees posed beside him and the photos were released without pause, revealing the degree to which the racialised marginalisation of low-income migrant workers in the Gulf is normalised.
The photos encapsulate the unequal impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the region’s 30 million migrant workers, who make up anywhere between 80-90 percent (in Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain) to 60-70 percent (in Saudi Arabia, Oman) of labour markets. Those still at work risk their health to make other people’s lives safer – as cleaners, domestic and healthcare workers; easier – as grocery store staff or delivery men; or richer – by still toiling on construction sites.
The dualities of the Gulf’s social and economic systems are often oversimplified – rich nationals in the public sector, poor migrants in the private – but the pandemic has thrown these divides into stark relief. As Laavanya Kathiravelu writes in her introspection of migrants in Dubai, social distancing is already institutionalised in the Gulf; low-income workers from the Global South do the dirty and demeaning work, while physically and financially isolated from the modern societies they make possible.
But this kind of social distancing is not saving lives – instead, it puts workers at greater risk of infection and other fallouts of the crisis. Migrant workers are not only excluded from emergency financial protections (with some exception in Qatar) but abandoned wholesale. Our networks have seen a sharp rise in cases from throughout the region – workers with no money for food, who face eviction because they can not pay rent; workers forcibly isolated in crowded labour accommodation or quarantine facilities with no water; workers who are not receiving critical medical care. All without the emotional support of their families and communities. Joint letters issued by a coalition of organisations including Migrant-Rights.org, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch urge the Gulf states to protect workers and include them in COVID-19 policy responses.
The plight of these workers is not only a consequence of the economic downturn but of their forced temporariness under the Gulf’s migration regimes. The “kafala”, or sponsorship system, privatises labour management, tying each migrant worker to an employer with near-complete control over their legal residency. Not only does kafala increase the risk of unpaid wages and pitiable working conditions, but it also absolves states of their responsibility to migrants. There is neither an economic nor a social contract between these essential workers and the countries they give their most productive years to.
The working conditions the kafala enables, combined with inefficient complaints mechanisms, leave many workers in need of financial support. States do not provide meaningful assistance and charities play a role only in extreme cases. Instead, workers depend on diaspora associations for relief. For decades, Asian and African community groups have quietly provided food, accommodation and tickets home for workers in distress.
Now, even this last line of social protection is strangled by stay-at-home orders, creating a vast need that is not being met by governments so accustomed to offloading responsibility. Hotlines function poorly, often providing misinformation, while authorities often take days to respond – with much nudging – to workers abandoned without food or water. Countries of origin are also slow to respond, partly due to capacity and partly due to an entrenched shirking of responsibility towards overseas workers.
Several Gulf countries now hope to reduce their burden by repatriating workers en masse, despite the multilayered risks involved. These calls are echoed by both jingoist and more progressive circles. “The threat is not from the outside,” one prominent activist in Bahrain tweeted, “it is from within us,” referring to the country’s migrant population. Actors, officials and media personalities from across the Gulf expressed similarly xenophobic sentiments, receiving both censure and agreement in response.
The Gulf’s temporary migration regime exists precisely for scenarios like this – to easily dispose of a workforce when it is no longer needed or wanted. Having never been allowed to belong, the racialised distancing between classes makes for a clean break, at least for the host countries. For migrant workers, the consequences are almost too immense to fathom.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.