BEIRUT, Lebanon — Qatar has locked down tens of thousands of migrant workers in a crowded neighborhood, raising fears it will become a coronavirus hotbed. Companies in Saudi Arabia have told foreign laborers to stay home — then stopped paying them. In Kuwait, an actress said on TV that migrants should be thrown out “into the desert.”
The oil-rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf have long relied on armies of low-paid migrant workers from Asia, Africa and elsewhere to do the heavy lifting in their economies, and have faced longstanding criticism from rights groups for treating those laborers 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.
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,” said Mohamed al-Sayid, an Egyptian restaurant worker stuck with seven friends in a one-room apartment in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, after they lost their jobs. “Nobody checked on us at all. I’m not afraid of corona. I’m afraid we’ll die from hunger.”
Lockdowns and the resulting economic downturns have dealt harsh blows to migrant communities across the globe, including in Southeast Asia and inside India. But 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 labor 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. They often work and live in substandard conditions to earn more than they could at home.
More than one-third of Saudi Arabia’s 34 million people are foreigners, as are about half the populations of Bahrain and Oman, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook. In Kuwait, foreigners outnumber citizens by more than two to one; in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, that ratio is nearly nine to one.
As the virus has spread, Gulf countries have imposed lockdowns and other restrictions aimed at limiting contagion that have dramatically slowed their economies.
Many of these losses have trickled down to the laborers. 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 to the World Cup in 2020, 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,” said Vani Saraswathi, associate editor of Migrant-Rights.org, an advocacy group. “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 laborers.
King Salman of Saudi Arabia announced last month that he would cover the treatment of anyone suffering from Covid-19 in the kingdom, including foreigners. But a $2.4 billion aid package that will partially cover the salaries of private sector workers applies only to Saudi citizens.
The United Arab Emirates passed a new regulation empowering companies to grant paid and unpaid leave and cut wages temporarily or permanently for noncitizen employees. While such changes are to be done by mutual agreement, labor advocates say workers have little real leverage against their employers.
“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.
Many laborers 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.
Qatar has earmarked more than $800 million to help companies pay their employees and issued regulations shortening the workday to try to stem the virus’s spread. But workers say the policies are not always applied on the ground.
A Kenyan oil worker in Qatar said he used to ride to work on a crowded bus with 60 other people, but the employees complained and the company reduced capacity to 30 men per bus. He still shares a room in a company compound with three others, in a ward with only six bathrooms for 450 men.
“Crowding is the problem, and washing hands is almost unrealistic,” he said by phone, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of punishment by his employer.
His company provides food, but in a communal dining hall that is often crowded.
“It is not in any way social distancing,” he said. “It is only God who is protecting people.”
Gulf countries have banned unionization and other activism aimed at improving workers’ conditions, leaving laborers with few places to turn if their employers violate their contracts or fail to pay them.
Last month, Totzky de la Cruz, a Filipino restaurant worker in Saudi Arabia, was told with 16 of his colleagues to stop working and that no work meant no pay. The men were not paid their final salary, and food allowances their employer promised have not arrived.
“We are left to help and rely on each other,” Mr. de la Cruz said. “Whoever has extra money among us would have to support the others.”
The most vulnerable workers, advocates say, are those without contracts who freelance on the local market.
Women who work as in-house maids often have nowhere to turn if their employers abuse them, and day laborers have no company responsible for their well-being. Lockdowns mean they can’t go out to look for work, or sometimes even to buy food.
“We can’t go out because the police are very strict,” said Islamuddin Iqbal, a Pakistani day laborer in Oman who 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,” Mr. Iqbal said by phone. “We have started to eat less, to save what we are left with.”
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon; Salman Masood from Islamabad, Pakistan; and Jason Gutierrez from Manila.