Equidem’s "The Cost of Contagion" shines a light on mistreatment of migrant workers in the Gulf during COVID-19

“There are 3,000 workers in the camp where I live. Each floor has a kitchen and toilet and around 80 people share a single toilet and kitchen. It gets very crowded. In the morning there are lines to use the bathroom. There is no way we can maintain social distance in such a small area.”

— A painter employed by JML Constructions, a Dubai Expo contractor in the United Arab Emirates

Equidem’s new report, The Cost of Contagion, contains the voices of over 200 women and men working in low-wage jobs in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, and shines a bright and necessary light on the human rights impacts of COVID-19 on migrant workers in the Arab Gulf.

These workers are the backbone of these societies but remain at the margins, where they are vulnerable to discrimination, abuse and now a deadly pandemic.

The report found that the governments of the countries featured in the report have been guilty of racial discrimination in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, acting quickly to provide financial and other benefits to local business and nationals, while leaving millions of migrant workers in jobless destitution and, in some instances, death, and the ever-present risk of being infected by a deadly virus.

Researchers found that throughout the year, companies have placed millions of migrant worker employees on drastically reduced salaries or unpaid leave without adequate monitoring, leaving thousands of workers in situations of forced labour and modern slavery virtually overnight.

The report shows that major companies – including Aramco, the second largest company in the world – have often not paid subcontractors or their own employees, leaving thousands of migrant workers in poverty and extreme anxiety. Workers who tried to speak up for themselves were usually shut down, often harshly.

“In March 26 during the lockdown, I caught high fever. I sent my co-worker to the manager to tell about my illness. But nobody came to see me in two days. Then I myself went to the manager’s office. He scolded me saying ‘why did you come here?’ but then he spoke another language and I didn’t understand. Then another person in the office caught my hand and tried to drag me out of that place, and another person slapped me. Then other people started beating me. One of them hit me on the head with a stick. My head was bleeding.”

— A construction worker at Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup sub-contractor Rise and Shine Group

In its report, Equidem calls on the governments of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to:

  • End the racial discrimination of migrant workers by providing the same employment and other protections to everyone regardless of their nationality, gender or any other identity.
  • Give workers the payments and other benefits owed to them.
  • Enforce and enhance existing labour protections and other laws that would enable governments and businesses to respect migrant worker rights if properly enforced.

This must-read report is available here.

You can also watch Equidem’s report launch event, featuring researchers, workers, and experts here.