Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2020, pp. 46-47
Islam and the Middle East in the Far East
By John Gee
BANGLADESH’S government has long encouraged labor migration as a means of generating income from remittances. Around 400,000 workers go abroad each year, and at the beginning of 2020, between 8 and 10 million Bangladeshi citizens worked in other countries.
Labor recruitment has been a lucrative source of income for Bangladeshi middlemen, many of whom are connected to a web of established politicians and bureaucrats. In order to obtain a job, migrant workers typically pay the equivalent of well over a year’s salary in the country where they go to work. Workers pay up because they feel they have no choice, and, if they’re lucky, they might remain employed for years in a job that gives them a much higher income than they could earn at home. Their earnings support the education of younger relatives, allow their families to buy land and build better houses, sometimes room by room, or simply to survive. For many families, a relative working abroad is their main source of income. A young man who goes abroad to work improves his marriage prospects and, even if he doesn’t manage to earn much, his sacrifice in going to work in a foreign country gains him respect.
When COVID-19 spread around the world, migrant workers were among those hardest hit. Many male workers in the Gulf region and Southeast Asia were living in packed dormitory accommodations, including mega-dormitories housing thousands of men. Once one worker was infected, the disease spread rapidly among their colleagues and they were then perceived as a threat to the local population in their countries of employment.
Many employers, faced with lockdowns and collapsing incomes, decided to fire some or most of the migrant workers they’d hired. Those dismissed workers who were paid in full and repatriated at their employers’ expense were the fortunate ones. In many cases, workers went unpaid or underpaid and were left to figure out for themselves how to return home.
For Bangladesh, this made COVID-19 doubly disastrous. In a matter of weeks, demand for Bangladeshi workers plummeted. Those already abroad started to return.
At least 80 percent of Bangladeshi migrant workers were employed in the Middle East, mainly in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Saudi Arabia alone employed 1.5 million, half of whom had become undocumented workers as a result of their work permits expiring. Undocumented workers everywhere during the COVID-19 outbreak have been particularly exposed to risk. Besides typically living and working in confined conditions, they are normally very reluctant to seek medical treatment when they fall ill out of fear of arrest, penalization and deportation.
Between January and March, around a million Bangladeshi workers employed in the Middle East returned to their country. Few were quarantined, even when the danger posed by COVID-19 was widely recognized and the countries where they had worked were already reporting significant rates of infection. Bangladesh only reported its first case on March 8, but the infection was probably already well-established by then.
In 2020, according to a World Bank report released in April, remittances directly contributed $18.3 billion to Bangladesh’s income. For South Asia as a whole, the report anticipated that remittance income would fall by 22 percent this year. Many returning workers could not even bring with them their final earnings; NGO reports suggest that three out of every four returned workers had either not been paid their final wages or had only been paid in part. In addition to economic losses, conditions in Bangladesh have been exacerbated by catastrophic floods that affected over half of the country and are among the worst in living memory.
Besides facing loss of income and movement restrictions, workers who remained in destination countries have been distressed by news from home. At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, some received appeals from relatives to return for the sake of their own safety, but as infection took hold in Bangladesh, many workers were advised by their families that they were probably better off where they were.
Nevertheless, the desire to return home could become very strong, particularly when workers heard of the illness or death of a relative (not necessarily from COVID-19), or received images on their mobile phones of the destruction wrought by the floods. In most GCC countries, workers must obtain a permit from their employer in order to leave; the exception is Qatar, which did away with exit visas in October 2019. And, some workers, who wanted to return home, simply could not get a flight back when they wanted one.
Across South Asia, the story is similar, though with variations. Nepal will suffer most from the loss of remittances, which are its largest source of foreign earnings. The relatively robust health system of the south Indian state of Kerala was put to the test when workers repatriated from the Gulf region brought COVID-19 with them. In a March 25 article, independent journalist Rejimon Kuttappan, reported that of 63 COVID-19 cases recorded in Kerala in the preceding three days, 44 had been imported from Dubai.
On May 1, more than 350 NGOs from across South Asia issued a joint call for governments to protect migrant workers. A month later, Migrant Forum in Asia and four other transnational NGOs launched a call for an urgent justice mechanism for repatriated migrant workers. Their press release said:
“Without ensuring that companies and employers are doing their due diligence to protect and fulfill the human rights and labor rights of repatriated migrant workers, states across migration corridors become complicit in overseeing procedures where millions of workers will be returning without their earned wages or workplace grievances being heard, nor seeing justice in their situation.”
“Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures,” said William Gois, regional coordinator of Migrant Forum in Asia. “Millions will suffer if this crime goes unnoticed. We cannot see this as collateral damage brought by the pandemic.”
In the Middle East, some NGOs and individuals tried to provide assistance to workers in the midst of the crisis. This included delivering food to workers who were confined to their accommodation and who had no income. In some places, workers organized mutual support, with those who had food or income sharing with those who had neither. In June, the International Domestic Workers Federation and a group of Lebanese NGOs called on the Lebanese government to facilitate the return home of workers without any penalties, in view of the dire situation in the country.
There will be long-term consequences of COVID-19 for migrant workers’ presence in some Middle Eastern countries, especially those already affected by the fall in oil prices. In 2017, the International Labor Organization estimated that the Arab states (not including those of North Africa) employed 23 million migrant workers, of whom 9 million were women. The majority came from Asian countries.
Before COVID-19, migrant workers outnumbered the indigenous population of the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait, and in Saudi Arabia, 12 million migrant workers comprised a majority of the work force. Their numbers have certainly fallen and may not return to their previous levels, although it is unlikely that any of these states can radically reduce their reliance on migrant workers, who do work locals will not.
John Gee is a free-lance journalist based in Singapore and the author of Unequal Conflict: The Palestinians and Israel.