On March 20, Susmi Gurung, a 29-year-old migrant worker from Nepal, began her day as usual. She awoke in the room she shared with nine other employees of Transguard Group, the United Arab Emirates–based company that had placed her in customer service at the Dubai International Airport nearly three years prior. The room was one of many, packed and utilitarian, that made up the Al Quoz 10 labor camp, one of many such camps in the industrial zone south of the city center. Before long, Gurung’s routine was brought to a sudden halt by her supervisor, who informed her that her employment—and salary—would be suspended indefinitely because of the rapidly deepening Covid-19 crisis. Overnight, Gurung found herself stranded without income, nearly 2,000 miles from her husband and 7-year-old daughter, as the world descended into a pandemic.
“We were all very scared,” she recalled to me in a phone call, describing the swift lockdown that followed, adding that the company’s Covid-19 protection measures were minimal. “They put hand sanitizer out and gave each person just one mask that we had to keep washing and reusing for months. But they weren’t testing us.” Some of the workers were still required to report for duty, leaving Gurung terrified that they’d “bring the virus back with them” and spread it around the camp. She recalls that these workers were given temperature checks upon return—a measure that detects only those cases in which a fever is present, but can miss many others. She started to hear rumors of infections breaking out in the camp, and her apprehension grew. “We were sure we’d get sick.”
Gurung’s terror of falling ill was compounded by the loss of her monthly salary of 1,100 AED (the Emirati dirham, roughly equivalent to $300). Although Transguard continued to offer free food, she quickly ran through her meager savings, most of which she’d already sent to her family in Nepal. “I had nothing left,” she said. “Even though the food was terrible, I couldn’t even go to the grocery store to buy the smallest thing.” In April, unable to wait any longer without pay and fearing for her safety, she submitted her resignation. The company denied her request. As the global lockdown tightened, Gurung felt trapped—under the terms of her Transguard contract, the company retained possession of her passport. “There was nothing I could do. They kept telling me, just wait, just wait.” (Transguard did not respond to a request for comment.)
Gurung was far from alone. In the Arabian Gulf, a region already defined by economic extremes, the Covid-19 pandemic has amplified systemic discrimination against migrant workers to life-or-death proportions. While the governments of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE scrambled to respond to the coronavirus, millions of migrant workers found themselves abruptly deprived of income, and in many cases trapped in crowded accommodations with little access to health care or even food. Others were shunted to quarantine or detention facilities, often in unsafe conditions that had been linked to disease outbreaks even before the arrival of the coronavirus.
Not surprisingly, these conditions led to outbreaks among many migrant communities, says Ryszard Cholewinski, senior migration specialist for the International Labour Organization’s Regional Office for Arab States. “Through no fault of their own, many migrants were unable to observe basic precautions to protect themselves from the virus” he told me. “And these communities were among the most vulnerable in these Gulf countries, even before the pandemic.” Despite spotty testing and data collection, experts suggest that migrants have constituted the majority of Covid-19 cases in several Gulf countries, especially in the early months. Often, such spikes were interpreted as the confirmation of xenophobic, scapegoating narratives, including claims that migrants were simply too dirty or reckless to avoid infection.
While some governments tried to move migrants from crowded accommodations into empty buildings or offer free testing, many of the efforts to “contain” the virus amounted to simple abandonment. “Systemic racism and discrimination against migrant workers in the Gulf has been a problem for decades,” says Rima Kalush, director of Migrant-Rights.org, a human rights group that focuses on the GCC. “What this crisis has made clear is that migrant workers have never been considered true members of these societies—they are viewed as temporary sources of labor, nothing more.”
Many of these “temporary” workers, who are estimated to number over 20 million, have been present in the Gulf for years or even decades, and their labor has been integral to the Gulf’s rapid, oil-backed development since at least the 1950s. They have labored in sweltering constructions sites, staffed sprawling retail complexes, worked in restaurants, and provided round-the-clock domestic work in millions of homes.
Yet, despite their overwhelming numbers—foreign nationals make up roughly a third of the population in Saudi Arabia, 40 percent in Oman, the majority in Bahrain and Kuwait, and more than 80 percent in Qatar and the UAE—most migrants exist in a constant state of precarity. Even after decades of employment, these workers remain subject to the kafala system, a carefully engineered legal limbo that, at its worst, has been likened to modern-day slavery. Migrant workers remain at the mercy of their employer throughout their employment, and most are unable to change jobs, take a leave, or exit the country without explicit permission of their kafeel, or sponsor. Labor laws almost uniformly favor the employer, while the scant protections afforded workers are poorly enforced, leading to rampant exploitation.
While the sheer numbers of migrant workers makes them, on the one hand, ubiquitous, the kafala system maintains the status of the migrant worker as a unit of provisional labor, categorically separate from the national population and the benefits of nationality. During her nearly three years in the UAE, Gurung says she has rarely interacted with Emiratis. “I never saw Dubai,” she recalls. “I only saw the airport and the camp. You feel like the UAE citizens don’t even know you’re there.” But when her company repeatedly denied her attempts to terminate her work and return home, her isolation felt overwhelming. “There is no one to ask for help,” she says, adding that she would never have dreamed of going to Emirati authorities with her complaints. “The UAE government? What do they have to do with me?”
Kalush says this is the experience of the vast majority of migrant workers in the Gulf, even among the many who face egregious violations such as wage theft, sexual harassment, or physical abuse. “Access to justice isn’t even a question for most. Even if a country theoretically allows you to file a complaint, it is very rare that a worker will have the courage to do so. Usually it leads to nothing—at the very least, you will spend months waiting for a ruling, usually without pay. And that is in the best of times—not in a pandemic.”
Nepali “Rasheed” Tamang (he asked that I use his nickname to protect his privacy) worked for two years at a warehouse in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, and said he routinely witnessed his coworkers accepting abusive treatment. “If we didn’t work fast enough, they would yell at us and threaten us. I saw them beating some people. If something went missing, we got charged huge fines. Once, a worker was hit by a forklift and broke his leg—and all we worried about was how they would punish us.” Fed up with this treatment, Tamang, 27, left at the end of his first two-year contract, in 2018. “Now I am so glad I left.”
Gurung, still stranded in Dubai, got word that her husband had fallen suddenly, seriously ill. She petitioned Transguard again to let her leave Dubai. The company continued to stall, but Gurung said she never considered going to the Nepali embassy for aid. She’d heard from fellow Nepalis that their government was unwilling, or unable, to help. In the midst of the pandemic, embassies across the Gulf were swarmed with citizens applying for help with repatriation. In the midst of airport shutdowns, canceled flights, and domestic lockdowns, overwhelmed staff fielded demands from workers needing everything from Covid-19 testing to food aid to help negotiating their termination. “People were lining up day after day in front of the embassies, and still not being seen,” says Kalush.
In some cases, the migrants were caught in limbo, having been jettisoned by their employers but unwelcome in home countries that were unprepared to receive a massive wave of returnees. In some cases, however, the Gulf countries deported workers anyway—at times sending back packed flights that included passengers who tested positive for Covid-19 upon arrival.
This revealed another troubling dynamic in the migrant labor equation: the delicate balance embassies must strike between taking care of their citizens while appeasing their oil-rich hosts. “For many nations, there is more than a labor exchange going on—it’s a whole complicated power balance,” notes Kalush. “Some are nervous to defend their citizens too much—they’re afraid if they push too hard, or ask for higher wages on their behalf, wealthy countries will just take their business elsewhere.” Other nations, such as Ethiopia, have been actively seeking more investment from Gulf nations, she adds, further freighting the repatriation debate. “They don’t want to lose those opportunities by getting into a diplomatic clash.”
For countries like Nepal and Bangladesh, which are heavily dependent on remittances from the Gulf, such fallout could be disastrous. Last year, half of Nepal’s remittances and 73 percent of Bangladesh’s came from the GCC. Nepal’s dependence on remittances has doubled in recent years, up to 30 percent of its GDP. Countries like India and the Philippines, which have a longer history in the Gulf and a stronger diplomatic presence, says Kalush, enjoy a little more clout, but the power dynamic still favors the employing nations. Meanwhile, countries with weaker or newer relations with Gulf countries, including most African nations, are at a severe disadvantage. “Their embassies are less resourced, they are less able to assist their citizens, and they feel they have to accept whatever low wages or poor conditions the Gulf countries offer them.”
In the midst of the Covid crisis, even this tenuous balance has unraveled. After months of lockdowns, many migrants have gone from supporting families back home to struggling to feed themselves and keep off the streets. “After all this time without an income, even the middle-class migrant workers are running out of money, showing up in lines needing food aid,” says Kalush. “These are people who for years have been the breadwinners for entire networks.” Cholewinski of the ILO says the impact of this crisis has upended global networks of labor and wage flows. “The World Bank has estimated that global remittances will drop 20 percent this year,” he says, falling by over $100 billion.
This comes after years of increasing dependence on foreign-earned wages worldwide—remittances to developing countries rose from an estimated $76 billion in 2000 to $498 billion in 2018. Remittances from the GCC totaled about a quarter of this amount, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE representing the second- and third-highest global remittance outflow. Now, says Cholewinski, some migrants in the Gulf are actually finding themselves becoming a financial burden on their relatives back home. “It’s gotten to a point that we’re even seeing reverse remittances—these workers are having to ask their families to send them money so they can keep themselves fed and housed.”
Gurung found herself in a similar position, relying on small loans from friends to cover her minor expenses. “I had just returned from vacation in November, so I had very little money,” she says. “Soon, it was completely gone.” Meanwhile, she lost precious time, and in August received devastating news: Her husband had passed away, leaving behind their 7-year-old daughter.
Gurung grew desperate. By then, the company had begun sending some employees home—including, says Gurung, some who didn’t want to be repatriated. She returned to her employers and informed them of her husband’s death, begging to be added to one of the Nepal-bound flights. They stalled, asking to see her husband’s death certificate. After submitting proof of his death, the company agreed to let her leave—but said she’d have to pay her own way or wait an indefinite amount of time to be put on a company-booked itinerary. She asked to receive the end-of-service settlement due to her under her contract, but the company said they’d transfer the money to her after her return to Nepal. Unable to wait, she asked her friends to lend her the money for the ticket, finally booking a flight for August 6.
For Mahendra, a fellow Transguard worker and Nepali citizen currently still stranded in Dubai, buying his own ticket is out of reach. Mahendra, who declined to use his legal name to protect his safety, was placed on unpaid leave on March 21 but held out hope he’d be able to return to work. For months, he passed the time between his small, shared bedroom and the compound cafeteria, where, he says, the company has provided free but “very bad” food. He has not been tested for Covid. In August, exasperated, he and his roommate submitted their resignation and requested repatriation. The company repeatedly denied their requests, along with those of scores of fellow Nepalis, citing the expense of flights back to their country. Exasperated, Mahendra and his colleagues finally decided to take drastic action: On September 10, they gathered roughly 200 Nepalis outside Transguard’s human resources office to demand action.
The same anger that fueled these Transguard employees has sparked similar, sporadic demonstrations elsewhere in the Gulf. In May, for example, more than 100 construction workers in Qatar who had been completing projects for the 2022 World Cup protested unpaid wages. The outbreak of such protests underscores the desperation felt by migrants in the Gulf—historically, their precarious legal and economic status has made unionizing and demonstrating almost unthinkable. This despite the fact that migrant workers make up over 90 percent of private-sector employees in the UAE and Qatar, and 80 percent or higher in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Mahendra says his group was initially held off by hired security guards, but they eventually got a hearing with an HR manager. “They realized they couldn’t hold so many people for so long,” recalls Mahendra, who is 27. “They promised to do their best to send us home.” Since then, says Mahendra, many Nepalis have been repatriated with company-booked itineraries. He hopes his turn will come soon, but adds, “I still have a problem. When I get back to Kathmandu, I won’t have any money.” The only family waiting for him, he says, are his elderly parents, whom he was previously supporting with his salary. “My home is very far from the city, and I don’t know how I’ll buy a bus ticket. This is the scariest moment.”
The chaotic, shifting roles of companies, embassies, travel agencies, and individuals in the repatriation process make it difficult to determine just how many migrant workers have departed, says Kalush. “It’s clear there’s been a mass exodus from the Gulf—hundreds of thousands of migrants have returned home—but the majority are still there. In some cases, it’s people who have lost jobs and can’t get back, and in other cases, people are holding out, hoping work will resume.”
In this limbo, Gurung and Mahendra, whose lodging and food is provided by their company, might be considered the lucky ones. For many others, says Kalush, worries about starvation eclipse fears about the virus. “Getting food to people has been a huge concern,” he says, “and there has been no comprehensive plan to distribute aid. It’s been piecemeal, and after all these months, whatever momentum that was there to supply aid has dwindled.”
These ad hoc efforts, carried out by private charities, individual donors, and embassies, highlight the near-total lack of civil society in the GCC. Nongovernmental organizations are often heavily suppressed in the region, and the social services that do exist tend to cater to nationals. While some nations have offered free treatment to migrant workers who have tested positive, their access to other medical care, such as prenatal care for pregnant women, has been lacking, says Kalush, who adds, “When the government fails to take care of migrants, there is often no one else to step in and plug in the gaps.”
These gaps are not incidental—they are integral to the structure of the kafala system itself, which positions the worker as the charge of his or her sponsor, rather than a member of a social contract. However, most contracts also absolve employers of any real responsibility to their employees, says Hiba al-Ziyadin, Gulf researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The whole point of the kafala system is to keep these communities controlled by employers, with as little accountability as possible,” she says. When problems arise, says Kalush, “the attitude is just ship them off, and then ship them back when you need their labor again.”
As the bottleneck in repatriations continues, more migrant workers are facing the possibility of homelessness. While some landlords showed leniency for unpaid rent at the beginning of the pandemic, says Kalush, many are beginning to demand payment: “Again, the government is pretty hands off—they’re not evicting anyone, but it’s left up to the individual landlords, and some are beginning to take their tenants to court and win.” She cites Bahrain as a primary example of this troubling new trend, adding that being prosecuted for unpaid rent can result in a person being prohibited from leaving the country. Those forced onto the streets will find few options—shelters are scant, even for nationals.
Throughout the crisis, the region’s nearly 4 million domestic workers, the majority of whom are women, have faced a unique set of challenges. Many of them provide live-in services, including round-the-clock cleaning, cooking, child care, and elder care. The all-encompassing nature of their work renders their condition more vulnerable, and more difficult to monitor. For years, human rights groups have raised concerns about physical, sexual, and mental abuse of domestic workers in the region—and the advent of Covid-19 has only exacerbated such conditions. “Domestic workers are always the most at risk,” says Kalush, “but it’s also hard to know what they’re experiencing, given the lack of transparency.”
Even so, reports indicate that quarantine has led to increased pressure on domestic workers, whose employers are often demanding more cleaning and care as they find themselves stuck at home and fretting over contamination. Some may be trapped indoors during lockdown, while others have been forced “onto the front lines,” says Kalush. “They would be the ones accepting deliveries, going to the grocery stores, or taking the children to schools once they reopened.” Other domestic workers, such as drivers, are likewise exposed.
The long-term mental health effects of the pandemic on migrant workers is another potentially lethal, but much-neglected, aspect of the crisis. Even before the coronavirus, depression, anxiety, and suicide were both rampant and under-treated among migrant workers in the Gulf. Now, after months of uncertainty, frustration, and fear, many migrants may be suffering from undiagnosed psychiatric ailments, notes Kalush. “This experience has been extremely traumatizing for many, and that’s something almost no one is talking about, let alone treating.”
As the pandemic drags on and GCC nations transition toward partial reopening, the vulnerabilities of their migrant communities remain. For some, reopening offers at least the chance of income, but much of this work may come on a contingent or contractual basis, with even less security than former arrangements. For many others, such as those who formerly worked in travel, tourism, or the Gulf’s many now-halted development projects, the future is far more uncertain.
Much depends on oil prices, says Cholewinski. “Many migrant workers were in construction that was planned in accordance with [high] oil prices that are long gone. Many projects have been postponed, while the future of such developments as FIFA [the 2022 World Cup in Qatar] and the Expo 2020 in Dubai are uncertain. That’s thousands of jobs. It’s difficult to say how slowly these economies will recover, and when that will translate back into work.” Kalush says that even returning to work could be problematic for migrants. “They’re always on the front lines, whether in hospitals or restaurants or retail, so reopening will also mean more risk of infection.”
It remains to be seen whether the upheaval caused by the pandemic will translate into structural changes for migrants. Meaningful change would require a fundamental reconfiguration of the relationship between host countries and the migrant laborers on whom they so critically rely. GCC nations would have to stop treating migrant workers as disposable, interchangeable units of labor, and transition toward a more humane system that ensures their dignity and rights and includes them in the social fabric.
That would be a tall order, says Kalush. “When it comes to migrant workers, I’m afraid there are no lessons being learned.” While the exposure of structural inequities in the GCC’s Covid-19 response has led to some promises of reform, Kalush says it is difficult to know how much actual impact these proposals will have. Their scope is generally limited, and it will be difficult to monitor implementation. “Are we seeing societies actually plan for a future in which migrant workers are better included in society, more protected? So far, we’re not.”
The real hope, Kalush adds, comes from the sporadic incidents of activism and collective organizing. “The best moments have been those where migrants have found ways to mutually support one another. That’s not how it should be—they shouldn’t have to rely on one another alone—but we hope that at least these networks will help empower them with more knowledge on how to work the system and protect themselves.”
Back in Nepal, Gurung continues to reel from the loss of her husband. She has not found a new job yet, but she says she has no plans to return to the Gulf. The memories of her time in lockdown still haunt her, and though she has few prospects in Nepal, she is focusing for now on the one thing that matters most: her daughter, Aaniya. During our call, the young girl’s voice flits in and out of range. At one point, she clambers onto her mother’s lap, chattering. Gurung’s voice warms as she holds Aaniya close. “She is a beautiful gift from my husband.”