Manjit Singh has worked in the United Arab Emirates for 17 years, enduring difficult living conditions to provide a lifeline to his poor family in India. After the coronavirus started to spread this year, his employer suspended operations, leaving him in limbo. Commercial flights to the United Arab Emirates were grounded, India went on lockdown on March 24th and Singh stopped receiving revenue.
“For the past two months we have been sitting in the room and our company was giving us a salary, but now they are saying that they cannot 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 one of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in Arab Gulf countries who are struggling with stripped livelihoods, overcrowded camps and no easy path to repatriation, said Amnesty International, Migrant-Rights.org and Business & Human Rights Resource. Center.
In a labor camp on the outskirts of Dubai, hundreds of recently unemployed workers spend their days walking around the courtyard with their friends who come up with plans to go home.
“I haven’t received my salary for the previous month … they gave 150 rupees (about $ 2) for food and told us to manage,” said a construction worker who CNN agreed not to identify because of his fear of punishment from his previous employer.
“We have no money to eat. Sometimes the company gives money. Sometimes they give a partial amount. Sometimes no money,” said an Indian worker who refused to be named.
With little money left, men buy vegetables in a makeshift market near their residential buildings. “The company offers us one meal a day during Ramadan. But how can this be done with a meal?” said a construction worker, referring to the Muslim holy month of fasting.
Gulf countries claim to work to control the spread of the virus in these fields and neighborhoods while dealing with the millions of workers who are now jobless and unpaid.
On May 3 in Kuwait, Egyptian migrant workers protested in a state shelter, asking for repatriation, Kuwait’s interior ministry said.
The Egyptian government has since announced that it will start planning return flights this week.
This week the Indian government initiated a repatriation effort for thousands of “troubled” Indians stranded abroad. About 200,000 Indian citizens in the UAE have registered for repatriation, according to the Indian embassy, and more than 700 have been returned so far. More than 5,000 are ready to be repatriated from the Gulf this week.
The embassy tweeted that the Indians will pay the bill for their repatriation, presenting yet another obstacle to the stranded migrant workers.
Some embassies representing workers across much of South and East Asia in the United Arab Emirates have returned a handful of blocked citizens. The Philippines brought 494 citizens back to Manila last month.
Pakistan has evacuated 3,928 Pakistanis out of 60,000 who have registered to return, according to the Pakistani consulate in Dubai.
For decades, oil-rich Arab countries in the Gulf have relied on millions of migrant workers to build their vast economies. Workers flock to these countries in search of relatively higher wages and job opportunities.
The fields are coronavirus hotspots
As of Friday afternoon, the United Arab Emirates has had 16,793 confirmed virus cases and 174 pandemic deaths. Neighboring Saudi Arabia has over 35,000 cases and 229 deaths. Kuwait has reported over 7,000 cases and 47 deaths, while Qatar has 20,201 cases and 12 deaths.
But Gulf governments say they are working to contain the spread of the virus in labor compounds and have lobbied governments to repatriate their citizens.
“There are measures to test these labor camps, select them and isolate those who are positive, so there is a lot of effort by government 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.
With coronavirus pressures on private companies in the Gulf increasing, governments have responded with packages of economic incentives and laws to alleviate unemployment. But these measures, rights groups argue, will do little to mitigate workers’ difficulties, Amnesty said.
For now, Singh only asks for the basics: his home and his salary. “Otherwise, at least feed us. We’ll be happy with that too,” he says.
CNN’s Sarah El Sirgany, Zeena Saifi, Sanjiv Talreja and Manveena Suri contributed to this report.
Coffee enthusiast. Travel scholar. Infuriatingly humble zombie fanatic. Thinker. Professional twitter evangelist.