A rise in allegations of intimidation, wage theft, and health and safety breaches since the start of the covid-19 pandemic underscore the vulnerability of migrant workers in Gulf states, say human rights researchers.
A new analysis from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) has identified at least 273 allegations of labour abuse affecting almost 48,000 migrant workers between March 2020 and February 2021, more than three times the number reported the previous year.
However, the BHRRC believes the numbers of incidents of employer abuse and affected migrant workers are much higher as it tracks only publicly reported allegations.
There are an estimated 20 million migrant workers in the Gulf who account for 10% of all migrants globally, one-third of the region’s total population, and up to 90% of the manual labour workforce.
All six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council saw an increase in allegations, with the UAE accounting for the largest proportion of allegations (39%), followed by FIFA World Cup 2022 host Qatar (32%). In Saudi Arabia, allegations of abuse spiked eight-fold, with 49 reported during the pandemic, compared with just six the previous year.
An August 2020 investigation by The Sunday Telegraph uncovered how hundreds of African migrants had been locked up in "heinous” conditions, apparently as part of a government plan to stop the spread of covid-19 in Saudi Arabia.
The investigation was followed by a December 2020 report from Human Rights Watch, which found Ethiopian migrant workers were being held at a deportation centre in Riyadh in “degrading” conditions.
The rate of reported labour abuses peaked between April and July 2020, with the non-payment of wages the most frequently cited allegation, occurring in more than two-thirds of cases. However, reports of health and safety breaches represented the starkest increase compared with the previous year’s reporting.
Some 110 allegations concerned dangerous working conditions, unhygienic accommodation, or lack of medical access for workers, an increase of 688% on the 16 made the previous year. Inhumane or precarious living conditions were reported at almost five times the rate as the year before.
These figures are based on allegations reported by media and NGOs and so only scratch the surface, masking the true scale of suffering
Construction workers were impacted in one-third of cases, while hospitality workers reported abuse in one in 10 cases. Transport, cleaning and maintenance, as well as security and logistics workers, were also among the most affected employment sectors.
In one in five cases, workers were burdened by loans taken to fund their recruitment and may have taken further loans to fill gaps caused by wage delays during the pandemic.
In only 40 cases did workers report complaints had been successfully filed through official channels; there were only nine reports of successful outcomes for a worker.
“Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on working and living conditions for millions of migrants across the Gulf,” said Isobel Archer, the BHRRC’s Gulf programme manager.
“While all Gulf states took steps to mitigate the economic and health impacts of the virus on workers, the high number of reported cases indicate they were insufficient to overcome decades of government inaction.”
Archer said reports of workers living in unsanitary and overcrowded accommodation were extremely concerning given the ongoing global pandemic, especially considering workers reported that the covid crisis had caused or worsened their situation in 83% of cases.
“Employers have an obligation to take preventative measures to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the people they hire,” she said. “These figures are based on allegations reported by media and NGOs and so only scratch the surface, masking the true scale of suffering.”