Two months ago, they were fired because the spread of Covid-19 took a toll on the economy of the UAE. Since then, they have been confined to their labor camp, surviving on a drip of monetary compensation.
Manjit Singh has worked in the United Arab Emirates for 17 years, enduring difficult living conditions to provide a lifeline to his impoverished family returning to India. After the coronavirus started spreading this year, his employer suspended operations, leaving him in limbo. Commercial flights to the UAE were grounded, India was blocked on March 24, and Singh stopped earning income.
“In the past two months we were sitting in the room and our company was giving us a salary, but now they say they can’t give us a salary and we should buy a ticket to go home, but where should we buy the ticket? The 44-year-old told CNN.
Singh is among the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in the Arab Gulf countries who are struggling with stripped livelihoods, overcrowded camps and a difficult path to repatriation, said Amnesty International, Migrant-Rights.org and Business. & Human Rights Resource Center.
Workers are also particularly vulnerable to the virus, say these advocacy groups, and the compounds to which they are limited are considered to be hotbeds of the pandemic in the region.
In a labor camp on the outskirts of Dubai, hundreds of recently unemployed workers spend their days strolling around the yard with their friends making plans to go home.
“I did not receive the salary for the previous month … they gave 150 rupees (about $ 2) for food and told us to manage,” said a construction worker whom CNN agreed not to identify in because of his fear of being punished by his precedent. employer.
“We don’t have money to eat. Sometimes the company donates money. Sometimes they give a partial amount. Sometimes no money at all, “said an Indian worker who refused to be named.
With the little money they still have, the men buy vegetables at a makeshift market near their apartment buildings. “The company gives us one meal a day during Ramadan. But how do you manage a meal? Said a construction worker, referring to the holy month of the Muslim fast.
Gulf countries say they are working to control the spread of the virus in these camps and neighborhoods while looking after the millions of workers who are now unemployed and without pay.
On May 3 in Kuwait, Egyptian migrant workers protested in a public shelter, demanding their repatriation, the Kuwaiti Interior Ministry said.
The Egyptian government has since announced that it will start planning repatriation flights as early as this week.
The Indian government launched a repatriation effort this week for thousands of “distressed” Indians stranded abroad. About 200,000 Indian nationals from the UAE have registered for repatriation, according to the Embassy of India, and so far more than 700 have been expelled. More than 5,000 are expected to be repatriated from the Gulf this week.
The embassy tweeted that Indians would pay the bill for their repatriation, which is another obstacle for stranded migrant workers.
Some of the embassies representing most workers from South and East Asia in the UAE have repatriated a handful of stranded nationals. Last month, the Philippines returned 494 nationals to Manila.
Pakistan has evacuated 3,928 Pakistanis out of 60,000 who have registered to return, according to the Pakistani consulate in Dubai.
For decades, the oil-rich Arab countries of the Gulf have relied heavily on millions of migrant workers to build their vast economies. Workers flock to these countries in search of relatively higher wages and work opportunities.
In 2017 alone, migrants in the Arab States sent home $ 124 billion, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia ranking second and third in the world in terms of remittances, according to the International Organization work.
Camps are hot spots for coronaviruses
As of Friday afternoon, the United Arab Emirates had 16,793 confirmed cases of the virus and 174 deaths due to the pandemic. Neighboring Saudi Arabia has more than 35,000 cases and 229 deaths. Kuwait has reported more than 7,000 cases and 47 deaths, while Qatar has 20,201 cases and 12 deaths.
As the coronavirus spread throughout the region, overcrowded labor camps and other densely populated neighborhoods have become areas at high risk of contracting the virus. Many workers are confined to small rooms which they generally share with up to 12 other people, according to Amnesty International. They also use shared bathrooms and kitchens, which sometimes lack electricity and running water.
“Across the Gulf, Covid-19 highlights the unsanitary and overcrowded conditions in which many migrant workers live and their precarious legal status,” Amnesty International said in a statement last week.
But Gulf governments say they are working to contain the spread of the virus in the workplace and have lobbied governments to repatriate their citizens.
“There are measures to test these work camps, filter them and isolate those that are positive, so there is a lot of effort through government teams and non-government teams to ensure the well-being of workers and labor camps and high density areas in general, “said Amer Sharif, head of the Dubai Covid-19 command center.
As pressures from coronaviruses mount on private companies in the Gulf, governments have responded with economic stimulus packages and legislation to alleviate unemployment. But these measures, say rights groups, will do little to alleviate the hardship of workers, said Amnesty.
For now, Singh is only asking for the basics: his house and his salary. “If not, at least give us food. We will also be happy with it, ”he says.
Sarah El Sirgany, Zeena Saifi, Sanjiv Talreja and Manveena Suri from CNN contributed to this report.