3.1 Background on the spread of COVID-19 in the UAE
The UAE registered its first case of COVID-19 on 29 January 2020 and identified other isolated cases in February and early March. It then began recording sustained and significant numbers of cases from 18 March 2020. The Government of the UAE started lockdown procedures at this time. This included suspending the entry of all non-Emirati nationals to the UAE on 19 March and closing public venues such as beaches, pools, cinemas and gyms, on 22 March. At the time of writing, the rate of infection was still rising rapidly and increased from 19,661 confirmed cases on 12 May to 60,503 cases on 31 July. However, the number of confirmed deaths from the disease are low with just 351 registered as of 26 May.
The UAE hosts the fifth largest migrant population in the world and more than 80% of its population is made up of foreign nationals. In 2017, remittances sent home by migrants working in the UAE were the third largest globally.
3.2 Loss of employment and income
On 26 March 2020, the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation passed Resolution No.279, which exclusively applies to non-UAE employees. The Resolution outlines measures that private sector companies affected by government regulations to limit the spread of COVID-19 can take in relation to migrant workers. Under Article 2, employers, with the consent of their employees, can:
- Introduce a remote working system;
- Grant employees paid leave;
- Grant employees unpaid leave;
- Reduce employees’ wages temporarily
- Reduce employees’ wages on a permanent basis.
The resolution states that businesses that wish to temporarily reduce the wages of migrant workers while COVID-19 measures are in place must add an appendix to their employees’ labour contracts and provide a copy to the Ministry, if requested to do so (Article 5). Companies that wish to permanently reduce the wages of their employees must first obtain approval from the Ministry (Article 6).
Resolution 279 ostensibly seeks to encourage companies not to terminate the service of non-national employees and instead offer reduced wages or unpaid leave. A worker must consent in writing before an employer may change their salary. But with little government protection and limited access to justice, many migrant workers are in an extremely vulnerable position with no real ability to assert their rights or seek remedy for violations. While the UAE has long struggled with guaranteeing the human rights of migrant workers, the current pandemic has exacerbated and amplified these shortcomings. Workers who spoke to Equidem reported that their employers reduced their wages or put them on unpaid leave after Resolution No. 279 was issued.
Arham, a security guard from Pakistan working at Transguard Security, said that he was compelled to accept exploitative terms of employment after Resolution No. 279 was issued. He said:
Our supervisor told us that the company has been suffering from losses because of the closure of Dubai airport. The supervisor gave us three options. It was verbal, not written. (1) Stay in company, provided with rooms without salary, other remaining food and expenses to be the responsibility of labourers. (2) Go on unpaid leave either locally or in our home country with own ticket (3) Sign on termination letter. I and most of the workers accepted option 1 because option 2 and 3 were not possible because there are no flights these days to Pakistan due to lockdown.
Other employees of Transguard Security told Equidem that they had faced a similar situation. Tanay, an Indian national working as a general helper at Transguard Group on the Dubai Expo, said:
After the lockdown started, the company completely neglected its workers. I did not get my 5 months’ salary. They used to shout at me just for asking for my salary. They said, ‘no one will get salary for this lockdown period.’ After that, I was fired from work without any notice. The only explanation we got was that the company was making a loss. The company said they will transfer my salary amount once I got home. I have not got anything yet. I was also told they will call us back once work resumes. I do not know what will happen now. The company has stopped picking up my calls.
Shyam, a security guard from Nepal also employed by Transguard Security, said that the company deducted the amount for plane ticket and food from his end of service settlement and sent him empty-handed:
My duty stopped from March 18. I came to Nepal on July 31. I did not get my salary from March to July. The company gave us tickets in their name, but in reality, they made payment for the ticket from our salary. They have deducted 1,830 AED ($498) for tickets, 2,600 AED ($708) for food from our end of service settlement. I should have received 5,000 AED ($1361). I was entitled to leave and gratuity. They deducted money for ticket and food for the same and sent me empty-handed. For the first few early batches of workers, they did not cut salary. But, for us, they said, “You are here because your government delayed your repatriation. The company has to keep you here because of your government. The tickets have also gone expensive. We will not pay for the tickets.”
“I left my life as a teacher in Nepal. The recruitment agency promised me a handsome salary of 1,200 AED ($327). I only agreed because of the salary. I was so happy to see that my salary was 1,200 AED ($327) in the labour permit as well,” said Shyam who worked at Transguard Security. But, he added:
When I came to the company, I got only 800 AED ($218) a month. The company even goes on to reduce 20-40 AED ($ 6-11) a month for wifi. The company pays 125 AED ($34) for food, but if we eat from the canteen, they will reduce 305 AED ($83) from our salary. The canteen only provides 2 meals a day. Paying 305 AED ($83) a month is a huge amount for me. So, I ate outside on a monthly basis by paying 200 AED ($54). They started giving us food allowance only after 2017. Before that, we did not get a penny for food. I could barely manage between my expenses here and my family’s needs in Nepal.
He went on to add that the company neglected its workers and refused to hold any discussions with its workers.
The company never discussed any issued with its workers. There was absolutely no bargaining between the workers and the company. The company said, “If you want to work, you can work, otherwise, you can go back to Nepal.” We could go home after resigning. According to my understanding, the UAE government has given a free zone visa to the Transguard Company. This company does not have to deposit amount like other companies for visa. This is the reason why they do not stop and think about the workers. They can get as many workers as they like to make them do more work for nominal salary.
He also talked about the discriminatory practice the company had in terms of payment to nationals and non-nationals.
I went to work on a porter visa. I also worked as a visa service agent some years later. While working as a visa service agent, the locals there got 16,000 AED ($4,356). But when I sat in the same chair, did the same job, I got 800 AED ($218). I later worked as a social handling agent.
Equidem shared all the cases it documented with Transguard Security. In response, the company said:
Up until the global pandemic, Transguard Group had a workforce of more than 70,000. As clients paused or cancelled contracts due to COVID-19, we were forced to transition more than 12,000 employees out of the active workforce. This right-sizing included terminations at all levels of the business, from site-based staff all the way up to senior management. This lack of job security and the stress that it leaves in its wake has been felt throughout Transguard and was an unavoidable necessity that is unfortunately not uncommon in the current global economy.
The situation was further complicated by the closure of not only airports in the UAE, but also airports around the world. For Transguard, this meant caring for an unprecedented number of idle staff while they awaited repatriation, not only in terms of providing basic needs like housing and food, but also taking care to ensure their continued health in the wake of COVID-19. These actions include (but are not limited to):
- Free food (three meals every day)
- Free accommodation in rooms that house no more than four individuals
- Free wifi
- Free triple-layer face masks
- Free laundry soap and toiletries (including sanitary items for females)
- Temperature checks at all accommodations
- High touch point cleaning every 20 minutes in every accommodation
- Hygiene reminders provided by video footage and posters
- Social distancing encouraged by signage, floor stickers, videos and support staff
- Strict protocol for suspected and confirmed COVID-19 infections, including the establishment of a dedicated isolation facility that offers individual rooms, free medical checks, wifi and three meals a day
- Cross-training opportunities that allow for otherwise idle staff to be deployed on other contracts as they wait for their original work to begin again
Transguard is fully in compliance with UAE labour laws and makes every effort to ensure that all our practices are legal and ethical. This includes strict adherence to regulations that require salaries be paid in full and on time, as well as ensuring that full and final payments are released prior to employees leaving Transguard’s visa. Please note that “Iqama” is specific to Saudi Arabia and has no relevance to employees of UAE-based Transguard Group.
Transguard has always considered the continued wellbeing of its employees to be its top priority and if anything, COVID-19 has strengthened our commitment to provide a safe place to live and work.
Dubai Expo subcontractors failing to pay workers
The Dubai Expo is a megaproject in the city of Dubai that involves multiple construction and infrastructure developments as part of a major international festival. Originally scheduled for October 2020, the Dubai Expo will now take place in 2021. The Expo will be a marquis event not only for Dubai but for the entire UAE. Equidem documented 9 cases of workers employed by 4 separate contractors operating on the Dubai Expo mega project who had not been paid wages. Govinda, a construction worker employed by JML (UAE) LLC on the Dubai Expo mega project, told Equidem that the 300 AED ($80) he received from his employer every month to cover food expenses during the pandemic was insufficient, particularly as he has not received a salary since the start of the year. On top of that, JML said the food allowance would be deducted from his salary once he started working again:
Now that the work has also started, and we do 10-15 days’ shift in a month, we thought we would get our payment. We still have not got our salary. The company always tells us to have patience and we will get paid, but no one knows when we will be paid. All of us are struggling financially. We have responsibilities on our shoulders. Who will take care of our family if we are not paid?
Harihar, an Indian national working as a fabricator at JML (UAE) LLC, a contractor on the Dubai Expo megaproject, said he and a hundred or more colleagues did not get their end of service settlement. He said:
We did not get our end of service settlement. The company promised they would pay within 2 months. We have not signed anything, rather it was a verbal promise. We are all waiting to go home. We are not sure if or when they will get their settlement, but they would rather go home and be with their family than to wait here at the risk of getting infected. About a hundred workers in my camp, all of us in this situation and there might be others like us (working for JML) in other camps.
Govinda, who worked as a painter at JML (UAE) LLC told Equidem, “the company did not pay any of the workers during the lockdown. Instead of paying salaries, the company fired many workers without clearing their settlements. The company did not even provide flight ticket to go back home.”
Our research documented cases involving thousands of workers who were left to starve without any pay and unable to return to their countries of origin. Gaurav, who works for the Dubai Expo contractor Ghantoot Group LLC, in Abu Dhabi told Equidem in June that approximately 1,800 workers in Mafric, Mussafah, “are suffering without food because the catering company has stopped delivering food to us. We heard this is because of outstanding amounts from the Ghantoot Group. None of the managers will speak to us”
Other Ghantoot workers complained that they had not been paid wages. “The company is yet to pay my 3 months’ salary. They fired half the workers after the lockdown started,” said Gaurav. He added, “None of them were paid their remaining salary and benefits. The company said, “you guys (workers) either go back home or find work for yourself somewhere else”. Many workers went back home. Those who went home were not given air tickets as well. Some are still stuck with the company because of travel restrictions.”
Another Ghantoot worker had similar treatment:
I did not get my 4 months’ salary from the company. They sent me home saying they will call me back as soon as the work starts. There is not much work there. My friends who are still there tell me they work for 10 days a month. They get paid for the same. Workers like me, who left the country early, are yet to receive 4-5 months of payment. I did not want to come back without getting my salary. I am in a lot of financial trouble now. I have a family to take care of. There is no job in the village as well. I desperately need the money the company owes me.
“I have not received any payments in 5 months. I got fired without any end of service settlement from the company. Most of the work here has already closed,” said Umar, who also worked at Ghantoot. “Only a few workers work a day’s shift in a month. They are getting paid, but those who were fired, have not got anything from the company yet. We are all anxious about our payment. We do not know what will happen or when we will get our salary yet.”
“I only came to Dubai seven months ago. Due to the lockdown, our company fired newly hired labourers,” said Elaaj, a construction worker from Pakistan employed by the Dubai Expo contractor Al Naboodah Construction Group. He added, “now I am at dera (an accommodation where people live together by sharing costs) and jobless. Most of the people at our dera are from my hometown and they too lost their jobs due to the lockdown.”
Equidem wrote to the Dubai Expo Committee, the organisers of the event, and all of the companies involved in the Dubai Expo. Although the subcontractors did not respond, the Dubai Expo Committee provided a detailed response that is available here. The Committee noted that they were in contact with Al Naboodah, Transguard and JML and that “All three companies reiterated their commitment to the Expo Worker Welfare policy, their willingness to cooperate with your investigation should you choose to contact them directly, and to address any situations that they are made aware of.” The Dubai Expo Committee further noted:
Expo 2020 Dubai takes worker welfare extremely seriously. We employ a 12-strong Worker Welfare Team which is made up of global and regional experts in their field, supported by advice from world-class partners such as specialist risk consultancy Control Risks and PWC.
With regards to the specific allegations you have contacted us about, we would clarify that Expo only works directly with Al Naboodah and Transguard; while JML is employed as a subcontractor for a number of our main contractors.
Our Worker Welfare Assurance Standards, which are bound into every contract, set down both UAE law and requirements formulated from International best practice as required by Expo 2020. Of the additional standards required by Expo, half relate to employment practices, and the other half to workers’ accommodation and transportation. For example, contractors are required to provide increased space for accommodation and enhanced recreation facilities. We work very closely with all of our partners and stakeholders to make sure our worker welfare infrastructure remains best-in-class.
Every contractor working on our site is bound by contract to comply with our Assurance Standards, including our Policy on recruitment fees. In line with International Labour Organization (ILO) guidance, our Policy and Assurance Standards both clearly state employers must ensure the free and fair recruitment of workers. That means all recruitment costs – including visas, airline tickets, and any other administrative costs – must be covered by employers without exception, and absolutely no fees should be paid by workers. If, during our monitoring, we discover fees have been paid, workers have been reimbursed.
A number of issues of non-compliance have been identified, as is typical of a project of this vast scale and complexity. That’s why we have put such a rigorous, world-class monitoring system in place to make sure we stay on top of issues as they arise and remedy them immediately. We share and discuss our monitoring issue tracker openly in our Expo-led Worker Welfare Forums. These take place every two months with compulsory attendance and presentations from all of our main contractors.
All our contractors are obliged to hold regular Worker Welfare Committees with worker-elected representatives, during which members can raise issues and concerns. These must be held at a minimum of every two months. In 2018 we rolled out the Expo 2020 Worker Hotline – a free phone number available to all those working on the Expo 2020 site in eight languages, triaged by experienced call handlers. We have also launched Worker Connect, an app containing information on legal rights that all workers can access from their mobile phones. They can also use it to confidentially report grievances. In addition, we conduct regular face-to-face and unannounced interviews with workers on the ground on a confidential basis.
The two most regularly raised topics of concern are around wage payments and food, and we’ve worked directly with contractors to remedy both immediately.
Yatin, a Bangladeshi national working at DHL in Dubai said that he did not get paid for the period of lockdown. “The company only pays us for the days we work. We did not get paid during the lockdown since we did not work. I did not get paid for 2 months, April and May. I could not send money to my parents for 2 months. The company paid us only when the work resumed.”
Saksham, an Indian national working at Toyota Company, said that the implementation of Resolution No. 279 has had a severe impact on worker wages. He told Equidem: “The company is only paying half of my salary now. They are planning to send their workers on leave for at least 4 months.” Sundar, who also worked at Toyota Company, told Equidem how difficult it was to manage his finances after his salary was suddenly cut into half:
The company said that there will be some delay in the payment of wages. We did not get paid during the lockdown period. I have not received my 3 months’ salary. I am facing a lot of trouble financially. I do not have money to buy food. I had to borrow money from friends to buy some basic things. Even after the work resumed, we did not get any salary. The company has sent many workers back home. They too have neither been paid their salary nor other benefits. I do not know when I will get paid.
Other staff of the Toyota Company spoke about how the financial implications and the anxiety of receiving heavily reduced or no pay can be significant. “It is a very difficult time for me financially,” said Sundar, who worked for the Toyota Company in Dubai. “I used to live in a flat. Since the company started paying only half of my salary, I am planning to share a room with others. I have to think about my family as well. I will need to spend as little as I can. I also have debt on my back. It will be difficult to manage all these with what I am earning now, but I will try my best.”
Nihal, working as a driver for Mowasalat in Sharjah told Equidem: “The company was paying me 3,000 AED ($817) a month. After the lockdown, our company started paying us 900 AED ($245). No one ever asked whether I agree to this or not. This does not even cover the cost of food and accommodation.” Arbab, also a driver, who is employed by Fancy Transport said, “I have not received any payment since March. The government closed all the schools to contain the spread of COVID-19. I used to receive 300 dirham ($817) a month. Now I earn nothing. The company has totally neglected us in such time of need.
Kul, who works at a restaurant in Abu Dhabi has not been paid since February. However, he and his colleagues have continued working in the hope they will eventually get paid. He told Equidem:
We are still working, but the company has not paid us since February. At first, they said they would pay us 70% of our salary. They even made us sign a paper. We thought the company is going through a tough time, at least we are getting 70%. Now, we are not even getting this. The company is just providing us food and accommodation.
Equidem spoke to five workers employed by Industrial Technology Services Middle East L.L.C. on sites for the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). The men said their managers gave them two choices, to either resign and get an end of service settlement or to get fired by the company and receive neither final salaries nor end of service benefits. However, the workers now believe they never intended on paying them and simply wanted the workers to sign documentation that appeared to evidence their agreement to having contracts terminated and being sent to their countries of origin:
The company said that its work is not going well, so it will lay off employees. It put two options before us. First, the company will terminate everyone without salary and gratuity. The second option, if the worker resigns from his job, then he will get all the benefits including salary. The company said that we all have to choose one of the two options. All of us requested not to be sacked, but to reduce our pay. They did not listen. I did not have any other option than to sign the resignation. I signed it with the hope of getting my remaining four months’ salary. The company also snatched my card and pass and cancelled my visa too. But even after I resigned, I did not get my remaining salary and other allowance. After leaving the job, I was stuck here for four months and the company did nothing to help me.
Ram, a welder who worked for Industrial Technology Services Middle East at an ADNOC site had the same experience:
The company pressurized many workers along with me to sign their resignation. They said we should either sign the resignation letter and get our remaining salary or be fired by the company and get nothing. I resigned on 4 April 2020. My 4 months’ salary is still pending. I did not even get my pay even after signing the resignation.
Harendra, a pipe fabricator employed by Industrial Technology Services Middle East on an ADNOC site, returned to his home country, India. He said:
The company put two options before us. First, the company will terminate everyone, then the workers will not get the arrears of salary and other benefits. The second option is that if workers resign from their job, then they will give all the benefits including the arrears of salary. I signed the resignation letter so that I would get what I am owed. However, I did not get anything. I was stuck there for 4 months without pay.
“The company still owes me four months’ salary,” said Gopal, another former ADNOC employee interviewed by Equidem. He added:
We requested the company not to fire us. We were ready to accept a lesser salary, but the company did not listen to us. They told us the company was making a loss and could not keep us. They said we would get paid only after we signed the resignation. They said they would later transfer it to our bank account, but they have not sent it yet. Many workers like me were fired and sent back to their country.
Another worker employed by Industrial Technological Services Middle East, the ADNOC sub-contractor, who returned to his home country India described similar treatment:
The human resources department (of the sub-contractor) decided to terminate the services of all staff currently outside the country on leave and who cannot return due to the closure of international airspace and that these employees will receive one month’s salary. However, workers here have said they have effectively been fired without receiving their final pay checks or end of service payment, as required under UAE law.
“The company pressured me to resign,” said Umesh. According to Umesh, at the time of his resignation, representatives of ADNOC said that workers will be paid outstanding salaries and benefits before being sent home. He added further, “the company said only those workers who signed the resignation were entitled to the remaining settlement.” He signed an agreement with ADNOC, which Umesh said was not read out nor explained to him, thinking he would receive his final salary and benefits. But, as of October 31, 2020, Umesh was one of around 200 other ADNOC workers have yet to receive any payments. “I am back in India, but I have not received anything from the company yet. While we were still at the company, 200 workers along with me requested the company to pay our salary, but no one heard our cry for help.”
Although Resolution No. 279 makes clear that changes implemented under Article 2 should be agreed with employees before being implemented, interviews carried out for this report indicate that many companies took unilateral decisions regarding wage cuts and unpaid leave. In at least 20 of the 58 cases documented, migrant workers were not properly informed about changes being made to their terms and conditions of work, let alone consulted on them.
“No, the employer has not given me any information about salary and benefits,” said Rachit, an Indian national working for an information technology company in Dubai. “No help has been received from the government or the company yet. Even though we requested help from the company many times about food and water, but no help was received,” he said. “Countless people have lost their jobs due to COVID-19. The money that we earned so far has just been spent here for expenses. I do not know what to do now. How can we live in the coming days,” Rachit added.
In some cases, companies took the dual step of making workers sign agreements without their consent to terminate contracts and send them back to their country of origin, while keeping other workers employed without paying them. According to Ibrahim, a cook employed at InterContinental Dubai Festival City, a luxury hotel that is part of the InterContinental Hotel Group:
A Nepalese national working at the InterContinental Hotel, Dubai told Equidem that workers were placed on unpaid leave. He said, “We were on unpaid leave for a month in August. The hotel management notified the workers that they will be on unpaid leave. I had already considered going back to Nepal since we were not getting paid. For 3 months before August, I did only 2-3 hours of duty. It was getting very hard for me to manage my expenses. I have a family in Nepal, my parents, my wife and two children. We were barely surviving with only enough money to buy food. Finally, I am doing 8 hours duty. There are only a few guests now. Many workers are still on an unpaid leave. Some workers who were planning to go back to their home, are stuck because flights were suspended.”
Ibrahim added that the hotel management continues to abuse workers. He said, “Workers are made to work for 12 to 15 hours a day without rest. They are not paid the full amount for their overtime duty.”
The fact that migrant workers are tied to the employers through the kafala system and are usually dependent on their job to support their families and, or repay their debts, mean they have little choice but to accept whatever changes their employer makes to their wages or conditions of work, despite the hardship this will cause them.
Sunaina, an Indian national working as an aircraft crew member at Air Arabia Airline said that if the airline decided to downsize operations, employees would have no choice but to accept the company’s decision. She spoke about this in reference to Resolution No. 279. Sunaina said, “In this highly competitive field, it will be very difficult to find a job immediately if the company is dissolved. The possibility of cutting crew members cannot be ruled out.”
Workers told Equidem of their anxieties of being made to return to their countries of origin where employment prospects were limited. “I am praying that the situation will improve soon,” said Nihal, a taxi driver from Pakistan. “Otherwise I will have to go back to my hometown in Pakistan. There are no opportunities for employment there. I will be forced to move to other cities, like Lahore and Karachi. If I start working as a driver in Bunre, they will only pay me 20,000 rupees ($125) a month.”
Anil, an Indian national who worked as a valet driver in Dubai, said his visa expired in April. However, his employer refused to renew it. He told Equidem, “One of the managers at my company says that unless we sign a letter of consent to go home, they will stop providing food for us workers and will evacuate us.” Kabir, a colleague of Anil, who is also a valet driver, said the company refused to renew his and other workers’ visas after they expired. “We were told to return home and they refused to renew our visas. My boss said the new law says that those who are currently out of the country can come to the UAE by December 31, but I am worried that my visa will get cancelled when I leave the UAE and I won’t be able to return. I need this job, I’m the only one sending money home to my family.
A Pakistani national working as a driver at Hunter International Tourism, Dubai said the company he worked for fired workers without observing the notice period. He told Equidem:
The company fired hundreds of us without giving any warning. Management said it had cut down its operations because coronavirus had a huge blow on tourism. At the time, international flights were not stopped and most of the workers went home. We are weak and cannot challenge the decisions of such big companies. I consider myself lucky that I did not get fired.
Ekansh, an Indian national who used to work as a pipe fitting operator at Industrial Technology Services Middle East, Abu Dhabi said he did not get paid for 3 months and was eventually fired from work. He said, “The company did not pay my 3 months salary. I went to the manager multiple times asking for my salary. He said there was no money in the accounts, the business was losing money and will not pay any of us. I was then fired from work and I had to come back to India. I have not received any information as to whether I will get my job back or not. They have fired thousands of workers already. To my knowledge, none of them got any payment from the company.”
Other workers who had been employed by Industrial Technology Services Middle East told Equidem they faced similar situations. Mohan, an Indian national, said:
I have not received my four months’ salary from the company. They just kept saying the company has no contracts due to COVID. Many workers were fired without payment. There were 170 workers who got fired along with me. None of them got any settlement. The company made us sign a document saying only those who sign the document will get outstanding payment. But even after I signed the document, I did not get paid. They provided air ticket for India, but nothing else.
“The company asked me to sign a resignation letter,” recalled Daksh, another Industrial Technology Services Middle East worker interviewed by Equidem. “My boss said, “if you want to get your final salary and end of service settlement you must sign this” and he motioned at the (resignation) letter.” He further explained:
There were 300 workers with me who signed the resignation letter. But after signing the letter, we did not get a single penny. We have yet to get our 4 months’ salary. The company took our health card and pass. My visa got cancelled as well. I want to go back to my family, but I do not have money to buy air ticket. I complained on the online complaint portal of the Dubai government, but the government did not take any action on my complaint. I also called the Indian Embassy and told my problems, but the embassy also did not help me. Then all of us workers complained about this matter to Dubai police, then the company people agreed to send me back home, workers arranged for tickets and PPE kits for the journey on their own, to go back home.
Workers employed by Kiruba Technical Services LLC in Dubai said they did not get paid for 5 months and eventually were fired without any end of service settlement:
After the lockdown started, the company stopped paying my salary. I did not get paid for 5 months. I was in a lot of financial difficulty due to this. The company fired 300 workers after the lockdown. The company did not even provide air ticket to go back home. None of us got any settlement as we got fired. I did not have a single penny and I did not know anyone in Dubai. I had to borrow INR 50,000 ($669) from my relatives in India. I spent 30,000 ($402) on food and clearing debt here. I spent the rest on plane ticket. Now that I am back in India, I have no way of paying back the loan I took. I cannot find work in my village. It is even more difficult now due to COVID-19.
I got fired from my job. My boss said the company had to let me go because of (the loss of business and lack of profit) corona. My 5 months’ salary is still pending with the company. The company did not give us food during lockdown. I had to ask for money from my family in India. They too did not have any money so they took a loan at 5% interest rate. The company did not tell us anything about when they will pay us. I am already in India. I do not know how I will get my money.
The company did not inform us of anything about our salary or when they will pay us. When we asked for our salary, every manager, every camp boss kept telling me and other workers the company has no money because of (the loss of business due to) the virus. They fired around 300 workers after the lockdown. None of the workers got any settlement from the company.
Workers employed by Al-Branzee Company said that the company made them sign their resignation letter:
The company people told us that they are not doing well financially due to COVID-19 and lockdown. We were not paid since the lockdown started. They had said they will give us food allowance. A few days after this, the company people called us. They said we were being laid off and made us sign a letter. I do not know what was written in it. They said it was our resignation letter.
At first, the company kept saying they will pay us our salary, but later, they said they were in a lot of financial pressure and had to let some of the workers go. A couple of days after that, the company called me and some other Indian workers and asked us to sign the resignation paper. We signed the paper hoping we would get at least our remaining payment. I was stuck in the company for 4 months due to lockdown. The company did not help me, nor did they pay my outstanding salary and other allowances.
Three men employed by ANG Middle East Electromechanical Works LLC told Equidem that they were subjected to physical and verbal abuse simply for requesting unpaid wages owed to them. One of the men said:
I worked there for 6 months and did not receive my payment for 5 months. During the time I was there, I asked for my outstanding salary many times, but they beat me and abused me verbally. They have blacklisted me just because I asked for my remaining salary. I cannot go back to Dubai for a year now. The workers were treated very badly there. We were not given proper food to eat. The company made me sign a paper and fired me immediately. I was stuck there for 4 months. I did not have money to buy air ticket, so I had to borrow 1,000 AED ($272) from a friend. I have a loan of 2,500 AED ($680) in Dubai alone.
Another of the three men said, “the company beat me and many other workers just for asking to pay our salary. They beat us so that we would keep quiet. I have not received my salary in 5 months. I can barely afford to buy food. I do not have any money to send to my family, who are also suffering.”
“The company said that the work is not going well due to COVID-19. After that, the company fired me in the name of retrenchment,” said Udit, the third worker who spoke to Equidem. Udit said ANG did not pay him or his colleagues five months of wages. He claimed that company staff physically assaulted him and other workers to dissuade them from complaining. After his contract was terminated, Udit remained in the UAE for four months living in poverty and constant hunger:
The company did not help me. It did not care whether we lived or die. I had no money to eat. They did not even provide us food. I used to borrow food from my friends and relatives in the lockdown. They used to beat us when we asked for our salary. When I think about those four months that I spent there, only tears come out of my eyes.
The Government has directed, through Resolution No. 280 (26 March 2020), that support packages be used to help keep UAE citizens in their jobs or to find them new ones. However, the only provision made in Resolution No. 279 to try and support migrant workers who have lost their jobs is the introduction of a facility for “sharing employees”. This allows employers with a “surplus” of non-national employees to register them on the Ministry’s Virtual Labour Market System to enable them to work for other employers (Article 3). With the exception of employees’ salary, the initial employer remains responsible for all other entitlements (e.g. housing, leave, medical insurance, etc.).
The effectiveness of this initiative is likely to be reduced by the fact that flights into and out of Abu Dhabi and Dubai have been significantly restricted since April 2020 to help reduce the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Workers with informal employment arrangements or who are undocumented have faced particular challenges because their status makes it difficult for them to seek help to obtain unpaid wages or resolve other labour disputes. Tayyab, a Bangladeshi national who works on a free-visa arrangement in Dubai told Equidem, “I always keep money in my hand for unforeseen threats, because I’m not a permanent employee with any company and I only get paid when I find work. I don’t have any formal job, but I must pay house rent in due time and have to buy groceries and other things, which is very challenging. We have very little savings left. I do not know how long we will last here without money. Employers do not take any responsibility of employees who are on a ‘free visa’. We do not have any written contract with them, just verbal agreement of things. Due to this, we cannot legally compel them to help.”
3.3 Stranded in the UAE
Migrant workers have also been affected by restrictions on their freedom of movement, notably from other States limiting repatriation of their nationals abroad. Migrant workers who wanted to return to their home countries—whether because of job loss, required unpaid leave, or other reasons—were instead left stranded because of travel restrictions placed on incoming flights from the UAE due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, while States have broad authority in immigration matters, in prohibiting non-Emirati nationals from entering the country, the UAE government prevented thousands of migrant workers from arriving to resume or start work, many of whom had valid visas.
On 19 March 2020, the UAE prohibited all non-Emirati nationals from entering the UAE until further notice, including those with valid visas and residents who were abroad at the time of the announcement. This affected thousands of migrant workers who were unable to return to or take up jobs they had secured in the UAE. A significant proportion of these people would still be left with ongoing debt from the recruitment charges they paid to secure work in the UAE, which remain regardless of whether they are able to travel to start their job. On May 19 the UAE government has stated that from June 2020, it will start accepting back people with valid residency permits whose families are in the UAE. Conversely, there were also tens of thousands of migrants in the UAE who either lost their jobs or income and wanted to return home, but were unable to do so because there were no flights. For example, on 25 March 2020, India closed its borders and imposed a 14-day quarantine on all nationals who arrived via the Gulf.
The UAE put pressure on some migrant worker countries of origin such as India and Pakistan to facilitate returns. It announced in early April 2020 that it was considering restructuring its cooperation and labour relations with countries refusing to take back their nationals, including introducing quotas in recruitment operations and suspending memorandums of understanding. On 11 April 2020, the Indian Ambassador responded by stating that India could not accept repatriated workers until the lockdown in India was lifted, which would not happen before early May. Those trapped in the UAE without salaries were desperate to return home. The scale of the problem was made clear when the Indian government announced it would start facilitating a phased return of its citizens from the UAE on 7 May 2020 and immediately, 200,000 Indian nationals registered for repatriation.
Those who had been dependent on the support of friends for food and a place to stay were particularly anxious to get home. “It’s impossible for a person to stay here without a job and money. I am so glad that the government of India has taken a step, at least now, to bring us back home,” said Timin, who was living in destitution in Sharjah after his company terminated his contract in April. “There are millions of migrants here like me. I don’t know whether I will get a job after this epidemic situation,” he added. “I am eagerly waiting for an opportunity to get back to Kerala as soon as possible,” said Timin.
The UAE has sought to assist stranded migrants by providing free, automatic three-month extensions for residency visas that expired from 1 March 2020. In addition, administrative fines associated with infractions on any services provided by the Federal Authority of Identity and Citizenship will be waived for a three-month period from 1 April 2020.
3.4 Measures to protect the health of migrant workers
The Government of the UAE has taken measures to promote social distancing and protect the health of all workers. These include directing companies to:
- Implement protective measures for employees working on their premises, including by: limiting the number of customers visiting their premises to 30% of capacity; strictly observing health and safety precautions; providing screening devices; and taking employees’ temperatures;
- Ensure that when workers are transported to and from work no more than 25% of the vehicle’s seating capacity is used and a safe distance is maintained between workers;
- Limit the percentage of their workforce that can physically continue to work at their premises to 30%. However, work that is considered essential - and which is usually performed by migrants - is excluded from this requirement (e.g. infrastructure projects, catering, food processing, hospitality, cleaning, etc.).
Individuals who do not comply with government regulations to maintain public health and prevent the spread of the virus (e.g. they leave their homes unnecessarily, break the curfew or refuse to submit to a medical test upon request) could face fines of between AED 500 and AED 50,000 ($136 and $13,600 respectively). Fines may be doubled in the case of repeat offenders.
Fears of infection at workplaces
Despite these measures, workers told Equidem that they did not feel safe at work because there was no way of avoiding close contact with other people. Balendra, an Indian national working as a mechanical engineer in Dubai, said despite efforts by the Government of the UAE to protect the health of all workers, he did not feel safe at work. He said, “The problem is we never know who might be infected. This has made us all a little anxious. … We interact with different kinds of people through the day.” Sunaina, a member of aircraft crew for Air Arabia Airline, said:
I am worried about the current situation of COVID-19 infection. This is especially scary to me because I work for an airline company. In our line of work, we come in contact with various kinds of people. This is unavoidable. This makes it difficult to manage my health care in this lockdown. I am scared to go back to work. I do not know how I can work in this condition. I do not know what will happen to me if I get infected.
Equidem spoke to Abdul, an Indian national working as an equipment operator at Dubai International Airport, who had been placed on leave in March. In April his employer ordered him to return to his job at the airport. Abdul was concerned about resuming work because a high percentage of airport employees had tested positive for the COVID-19. Yet, his employer pressured him to return. When Equidem spoke to Abdul in April, he had just returned to work. He said:
They have not closed the airport yet. There is high flow of people both in and out of the country. So many people working at the airport got infected with COVID-19. The ground level staff, who were mostly in contact with travellers got infected. They then were placed on leave. This is the reason I was afraid to go back to work. But if I don’t go to work, they would terminate me from work. The company had verbally warned us. Because of this, I have been working again since yesterday.
Azad, a Pakistani national working at Modern Bakery LLC in Dubai, said that he was concerned about his health as he has to interact with a number of people every day and this puts him at a risk of being infected. He told Equidem:
I am afraid I will get infected with COVID-19. I know some workers working in other factories at different areas in UAE’s have died due to COVID-19. We do not know who is infected and who is not. Allah is great but I don’t like to die in a country like UAE. Because I work at a bakery, we use masks and wear it regularly. But most of the people I meet do not have the PPEs.
Women and men working as low-wage workers in the UAE are compelled to work in conditions where they do not feel secure because the alternative is staying at home and not getting paid. Girindra, who works at a supermarket in Dubai, spoke for many of the women and men interviewed by Equidem when she said:
One of my female co-workers, who is also my promoter, has not come to work because of fear of Corona infection. She will not get paid because she is not working. I cannot afford to not work but yes, of course I’m scared. We are working in fear.
One worker specifically raised the issue of migrant nurses from India not being provided with the appropriate personal protective equipment at work.
A lot of Malayail nurses are working here without any proper safety measures. Their duty hours have been increased to 14 hours a day go right back to their families after work. They are not working in a safe environment. Along with them, their family is also at risk.
High risk of infection in densely population worker accommodation camps
Workers were particularly concerned about the risks of contracting COVID-19 in their accommodation because of overcrowding. Most of the workers interviewed by Equidem in the UAE said it was impossible to maintain social distancing because they lived and slept in very close proximity with their colleagues. Ahmed, an Indian national working as a labourer in Abu Dhabi, described how he had to live in a small, dorm-like room with seven other men. His case is neither extreme nor exceptional, as evidenced by the following testimonies. Bilal, a construction worker in Dubai, said:
The labour industry does not have enough facilities to accommodate and keep patients in isolation. We are living in the rooms which each have 10-15 people staying together. A single labour camp has 1,000-2,000 people. Now I want to ask you, do you think the way this government is addressing the issue is enough for us?
Rachit, an information technology worker, said, “I am sharing my room with seven other people. The other six people lost their jobs after their visa expired. They have not worked in three months. have no jobs in three months.” Dev, an AutoCad designer in the construction industry, said, “the condition of workers is not good. We live in camps where four to eight people are in a single room with 30-40 rooms in each floor. They all have to share bathroom and kitchen. There is a high risk of transmission in this case.”
Chatura, who works as a labourer in Dubai was particularly concerned about the risks of contracting COVID-19 in his accommodation camp because of overcrowding and the inability to practice social distancing. He said:
I am staying in a labour camp along with hundreds of other migrant labours. There are four to six labourers staying together in a room, according to the rule of the municipality. In my camp, there are hundreds of migrant labours from other firms too. They are from Pakistan Bangladesh, China, Nepal and India too.
Yatin, a porter employed by DHL in Dubai said that there was insufficient space to maintain social distance at his camp. He said:
Ninety-three workers in the company got infected by COVID-19. There were about 600 people in the camp. The infected workers were isolated and rest of the people there were advised to maintain physical distance to avoid infection. However, there are a lot of people in the camp. We cannot maintain social distance because of the number of people in the camp.
Equidem wrote to DHL in Dubai about the conditions of its staff documented in the report. A response was received from DANZAS AEI Emirates LLC, which employs the workers working for DHL in Dubai:
We refute the allegations in your email below which are incorrect and misconceived. DANZAS AEI Emirates LLC is controlled and operated by Investment Trading Group LLC, and has been compliant with local employment law, rules and regulations in all matters related to its personnel during the Covid-19 crises, including with respect to accommodation and salary payments which are provided in accordance with labour/employment contracts and UAE labour laws and regulations.
Danzas AEI Emirates LLC, which operates as the independent affiliate of DHL Global Forwarding in Dubai and the Northern Emirates, adheres to the general principles found in the United Nations Global Compact. As you may be aware, the United Nations Global Compact is a pact in respect of the implementation of amongst other matters, socially responsible policies, including reporting on implementation.
Balendra, who works in the construction industry, also voiced his concerns about infection from living in close proximity with other workers. “We are scared that if even one person is infected, we all are at risk.”
Other workers spoke in similar terms:
For two months now, we have been confined in our room sized 12X12 feet, where we ten people are sleeping. Thera are only five bunkbeds. It is a small villa with a little courtyard. We get specific limited time for shopping. We cannot maintain physical distancing according to the WHO guideline in a tiny, congested room. All of us are at health risk.
All 100 of us live in the same camp. We get sanitizer and masks from the company but there is very little space to keep away from others. I am sure if one of us gets infected, everyone will.
Even after the lockdown, there are ten people in a room. 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 small area.
I used to sleep in a room with seven other people. There were around 500 workers in our camp. We all shared bathrooms, kitchen and a hall to watch TV. It gets very crowded. We cannot maintain social distancing because there were too many workers in a single place at once.
There are eight people in a room now. The company used to keep up to 15 people in a single room before the lockdown. There are about 400-500 people at the camp. Nobody follows the rules of social distancing at the camp. The company did not even give masks and sanitizers. We bought it with our own money.
I stayed in an accommodation provided by the hotel. There were 10 people in the room where I lived. There are very small rooms, with no space to social distance. We manage with whatever space we have. We try our best to avoid other people, but it is impossible to do so in such a confined place.
There were about two thousand workers in my camp during the lockdown. Currently there are 4 people in a room. The number of toilets in the housing is low compared to the number of workers there. The toilets here are public, which many workers use. There is a lot of crowding in the kitchen and hall. The company has done nothing to control the crowd or manage it in any way.
One worker told Equidem that he believed the infection spread fast at his camp because people were not able to maintain social distancing:
There were 12 people in my room and more than 500 workers in the camp. People were not able to social distance because of how small the camp itself was. It became a transmitting ground for COVID-19. Once a few workers got infected, hundreds of workers in the camp followed. I too got infected. It spread so fast because we could not maintain social distance at the camp. Upon that, the company did not provide any information related to the health and safety of workers during COVID-19 pandemic and how to avoid infection. It has not provided us with safety kits such as masks, sanitizers and soaps. Many workers in the company got infected due to lack of awareness and basic safety tools.
This is particularly worrying because the nationwide curfew was extended on 19 May by two hours, so that it is in force from 8pm to 6am. This may have had the unintended consequence of increasing transmission of COVID-19 among migrant workers who are living in overcrowded accommodation. Rachit, who survived a wave of infections that hit his camp, said:
I have seen how COVID-19 affects people up close. My room mates had fever and other symptoms for a few days. All of them are in bed. It has been just two or three days since they got their sense of taste and smell back. Looks like corona has hit everyone. The rest of us are sitting here just like this. No one is going anywhere. To be honest, there is no place to go.
It is clearly not possible for migrant workers to maintain social distancing when they are living with between four, ten or more other people in one small room. Some workers also noted that not everyone takes the appropriate measures to avoid spreading the virus to their colleagues. For example, Chatura, a construction worker in Dubai, said, “sometimes we get annoyed because the people who do not wear their masks, they cough and sneeze. So, we are in a condition, where we must wear masks even when we sleep.”
Even when other roommates do not become ill, workers are still likely to be quarantined and this may lead to them losing their income. As one worker explained:
The roommates of one of my co-workers, who was infected with corona, are there in their room only in quarantine. They could not work, and the company is refusing to pay them as they are not working. They get food from outside. We do not have any information about them. We tried calling them many times, but they do not have a phone with them.
3.5 Accessing health care services
Although all workers are entitled to free health care, a number of workers told Equidem they were unable to access it and had to pay for medical services and medicine. Bilal, a construction worker in Dubai said that when workers like him fall sick, they don’t visit the hospital. He told Equidem, “As the health and hospital industry is very expensive, a major portion of migrant workers never visit hospitals. Many workers like me are on visit visa. Whenever we fall sick, we all manage with cheap Panadol tablets.”
“There is no system of treatment here, people get medicine with their money,” said Rachit. “The company does not pay for treatment, all people get drug treatment with their own money. I cannot even go to the hospital because I am on a visit visa.” Some workers, like construction worker Bilal, felt strongly that the authorities cared more for their nationals than low-wage migrant workers like him. “We are sure that the UAE government will only take care of their citizens, who constitute only half of the actual population. They have already declared it indirectly. The press releases say other countries should take care of their own citizens, who are living in UAE.”
Dalbir, who worked as a welder with ADNOC until his contract was terminated during the pandemic, said many workers in the company were infected with COVID-19 and claimed some of them died of the infection:
Only the workers working at the company were provided treatment facilities. For workers like us, who were fired and were stuck without pay or access to medical facilities, the company chose to completely neglect us. One day I got sick. I had fever and body ache. I called the company people for treatment but they neither took me to the hospital nor gave me medicine. I ate a medicine my friend gave me. Many workers’ health had worsened. Some of them were seriously ill. They did not have the money to buy medicine, so they were asking for money from their home and getting medicine.
After resigning, the company cancelled my visa and health card. After that some workers were sent to the Mussafah Camp (in the outskirts of Abu Dhabi) and some were sent to another camp. The company did not take care of workers who were fired. In the month of May, I was having high fever and severe pain in my head, so I called the company people for treatment. The company did not help me with anything. We could not go to the hospital because our visa was cancelled. I was scared to go out because the police could take legal action against me.
After I was fired, the company sent me to the Mussafah Camp (in the outskirts of Abu Dhabi). There I thought I had some symptoms of COVID-19. I spoke to the company but they did not do anything about it. I had my COVID-19 test done with my money. I paid 250 AED ($68) for the test. My report came back negative. The company is negligent towards the health of workers like us. If I had tested positive, I could have died but the company would not do anything.
We do not get proper treatment facilities here. I was sick with high fever during the lockdown, but I was not taken to the hospital. My friends bought medicine for me. The company also used to deduct money from worker’s pay if they took sick leave. This is the rule of the company. If anyone takes leave, that day’s pay gets reduced.
The company stopped renewing workers’ health card after the lockdown. There were many people in the company who got sick and had high fever. But the company did not do anything to help us workers. I too had high fever and body pain once, after the lockdown. I was not taken to a hospital. I had to buy medicine on my own. I spent 60 AED ($16) for medicine, twice because of body pain.
The company did not even give me a health card. I could not go to hospitals because I did not have health card. There are many workers in the company who face the same issue. This is why the workers there go to the medical store and take medicines with their own money.
During the research, Equidem frequently encountered workers who said they were reluctant to visit hospitals or even take a sick leave because companies reduce that day’s pay from their salary. Seven of the respondents talked about the same policy their companies had.
The general rule at the company is that the day any worker remains absent from work, they reduce that day’s pay. I once had a very high fever but because the company would deduct my pay, I did not take any rest.
We have to apply for leave along with 80 AED ($22) to the company. Each one of us has to pay the amount, else they will deduct it from our salary. They even call and disturb us asking the amount. It is not worth the hassle, so we pay it upfront. Most of us do not even take leave to save the amount.
There were thousands of workers in my company who did not have access to health care facilities because their Iqama expired. The truth is, most of us would not even go to a hospital, because our salary for the day would be deducted if we took leave. The workers bought medicine with their own money. The company refused to renew Iqama even after we requested many times. They even kept our passport with them.
If a worker takes sick leave, his salary is deducted. The company’s rule was that the number of days you would rest, the company used to deduct salary for that day. We do not have the luxury to take rest for headache or fever.
The company does not give medical leave. They deduct salary for taking medical or any other leave. The company’s rule is that the number of days you will not work, those days’ amount will be deducted from the wages of the workers.
The hotel I work at had the policy to reduce pay of workers if they took any leave. It did not matter if we were sick or not.
If workers take sick leave, the company deducts that day’s money from their salary. The company said, ‘we pay you to work, not to rest’.
Equidem documented a handful of extremely serious cases in which employers did not take appropriate action or show a duty of care to their employees who contracted COVID-19. Mohd. Ikbal, an Indian national, died in Dubai in April 2020 after his employer stopped paying him before the lockdown started. Because he wasn’t paid, he couldn’t afford to purchase food and was always hungry. In April he felt ill and had a cough and fever and eventually died and at no point was taken to see a doctor by his employer. His family in India told Equidem, “He was living at a labour camp. He said they did not have enough food. Over a few days his health worsened. His coughing had tremendously increased. He did not have any money to even buy medicine,” Hredhaan recalled. “He said he contacted the company several times asking to arrange for food and medicine. The company did not do anything. We also tried calling the company. The company did not do anything. He sadly passed away in the same labour camp.”
3.6 The psychosocial impact on migrant workers
Migrant workers have to deal with significant insecurity and stress as they are struggling to survive financially and do not know what will happen to them if they contract COVID-19. Bilal, a construction worker in Dubai, said he was anxious about his health and pointed out a very alarming concern that many migrant workers might resort to suicide out of fear of getting infected and the impact this would have on their earnings. He told Equidem:
As we understand it only people who have the strong immunity system can survive this disease and the rest who do not have good immunity can’t survive. This has led us to panic. I am afraid and have depression as well. Nobody knows the extent of the mental toll this situation has put on us. There is a very real chance that many workers will resort to suicide. The Government should do something for us. Its either that or they’ll have to send our dead bodies home.
Nakul, an Indian national in Dubai committed suicide after fears that he would no longer be able to support his family. According to colleagues who spoke to Equidem, he was anxious that, if he contracted the disease, he would not be able to access medical care. Just days before his death, he spoke to a social worker and told him, “Due to the lockdown, there is a constant fear in my mind. If work gets stopped, how will I be able to pay for my daily expenses and my family? I am very upset about this.” Nakul had been working as a supervisor for a company in Dubai for the past 10 years. In April he was given a COVID-19 test after throat pain and a slight fever. His camp mates, who spoke to Equidem, recalled that he went into a state of panic waiting for the results. Friends comforted him, saying that he probably did not have the virus. One of his friends recalled Nakul saying, “I would have some hope if I could fly home but there are no planes in the sky,” as, at the time, the airspace around the UAE had been closed as part of global efforts to contain the spread of the virus. Nakul also spoke with his employer on the phone, over concerns regarding his job, and whether he would continue to get paid. After speaking with his employer, Nakul returned to his apartment. The other members in his apartment told Nakul that they did not want to socialise or share any household essentials with him. They asked him to leave and return only after the COVID-19 test results. He died on April 24 after first cutting his veins and jumping from the top of an apartment building. His COVID-19 results came out after he passed away: the result was negative.
Dev, who works in the construction industry in the UAE said, “I am not sure if I can survive this pandemic. Aside from the health risks, I am not doing well financially. The company is only paying half of my salary. I have huge debts on my back, and this is my only source of income.” He added, “the company is already talking about sending its workers on leave. It could last four months, or even more. How am I supposed to manage my expenses and take care of my family, without a source of income?”
“I felt anxious to be in my room all day during the lockdown,” said Girindra who works as a salesman at a shopping mall in Burj Khalifa, Dubai. “I was in distress because my room is very small. We are three people staying in a room. We couldn’t move properly. We were also worried about our finances because the company did not give salary for the days we did not work.” Girindra also said that it was impossible to social distance in the camps. “There is a high risk of getting infected with COVID-19. Unfortunately, we do not have a choice.”
“I am now completely devastated. I do not see any hope for workers like us in this foreign land,” said Arbab, a driver at Fancy Transport, “I am a diabetes patient and I do not have any money to pay for my health expenses. The company has not paid me since March because all the schools have closed down. I am scared for my health and scared that I might get infected. I do not know when coronavirus will end, and our situation will be normal.”
“I go to work with so much fear and anxiety. I live in a flat in Dubai with my wife and child. As a father, I’m more worried. I do not have any problem even if I get infected. I am more worried about my 6-year-old,” said Abdul an equipment operator at Dubai International Airport. “How do I interact with my family when I work at an airport where numerous people are infected? I am in a lot of mental stress right now. My wife also works at a hospital. We have not been able to hire a babysitter because all of them are scared of getting infected. We both cannot take leave from our job. We are forced to leave our child alone at home.”
Nihal, a driver at Mowasalat in Sharjah told Equidem, “I am in a lot of mental stress right now. I fear I might lose my job. I am able to support my family in Buner, Pakistan solely because of this job.”
“Honestly, we are caught between unemployment and COVID-19 risks. We do not go outside our rooms because of fear of infection,” said, Zayyan, a labourer at Gulf & Safa Dairies in Dubai. “I do not know when this catastrophe will end. I am especially worried about my job. I am hearing news that hundreds of factories, including our own, will be closed because of losses due to COVID-19. God help us.”
“I’m in constant fear of losing my job. It is mentally torturing me. I am continuously thinking about what will happen in the upcoming months. There are rumours that the company will lay off large number of workers the coming month,” said Warjas, a Pakistani national working at National Paints Factory in Sharjah. “This job is very important for me because I have to take care of my family back in my hometown in Pakistan. I have a wife. My parents are very and often need special medical care. I have not been able to send them any money because the company has not paid me since April.”
3.7 Migrant worker suicides
Equidem documented three instances of workers committing suicide in situations that co-workers claimed were linked to pressure and anxiety caused by their employers failing to pay their salaries during the lockdown period. Nakul, an Indian national in Dubai committed suicide after fears that he would no longer be able to support his family. According to colleagues who spoke to Equidem, he was anxious that, if he contracted the disease, he would not be able to access medical care. Just days before his death, he spoke to a social worker and told him, “due to the lockdown, there is a constant fear in my mind. If work gets stopped, how will I be able to pay for my daily expenses and my family? I am very upset about this.”
Madhav, an Indian national working as a foreman in Jebel-Ali, committed suicide on 24th April. In the days leading to his death, he was anxious he had contracted COVID-19 and faced prejudice and animosity from colleagues. His wife told Equidem, “My husband committed suicide because of the fear of potentially losing his job and his financial obligations. His mental health was neglected by his work colleagues. He could not get proper medical attention in time. The suspense of the test results triggered his anxiety and caused him to take his life.”
3.8 The impact on people who depend on migrant workers
Along with personal concerns, migrant workers are also worried about how they will support their families in their countries of origin and pay back loans they took to secure their jobs in the UAE. “I am the only earning member of my family. I have a lot of financial responsibilities because I took a loan to help my family,” said Girindra. “I have still to pay back most of it. Even in Dubai, I am sharing a room with three people. One of my roommates was fired. He does not have work and no salary. I am managing his food, accommodation and other expenses as well. So now, I am struggling financially. All workers are facing this kind of problems.”
For Elaaj, the lack of an income was a matter of humiliation not only for himself but his entire family.
I came to Dubai paying 200,000 Pakistani rupees ($1,264) as recruitment fees. I had to borrow the money from my relatives. It had only been a few months since I started paying them back, but then I lost my job. I was also saving money for my sister’s wedding which is to happen this winter. In Pakistan, it is our culture to buy furniture, clothes and other essential items for sisters during their wedding. My father told me that it would cost around 3,500 AED ($953). I had to spent what little I had saved to buy food and pay the rent. We will have to sell our piece of land in the hometown to arrange for our sister’s wedding now. In our Pashtun culture, selling land is considered very bad. But in this crisis, what can we do?
“The company has not paid my salary since March. I have to support a five-member family and did not send any remittance for the past three months,” said Izad.
My father told me that the grocery shopkeeper has stopped lending grocery after he did not get dues for March and April. My mother and father both are heart patients and they also need regular medicines, which are very expensive. This COVID-19 crisis has made my life difficult.
You may understand, for the past months there was no work. Allah knows, how long it will continue. We could not send money home since April. The Bangladesh government, some corporates and social institutions are distributing relief in my home country. My family is not entitled to the aid. I am in immense mental stress because my family back home is suffering.
I have a family of 18, and I am the only one earning money. I take care of all their needs. I have been struggling since the company decided to pay only 50% of my salary. It was Ramadan last month and in Pakistan, family expenses increase in the holy month of fasting. I was not able to send money not only for Ramadan but also on Eid. It was for the first time that my children could not buy new clothes on Eid.
I have not sent money to my family since March. I cannot even borrow from my friends here because everyone is suffering. Two of my younger brothers are studying in private schools there and if my economic situation does not get better, they will be forced to drop out. We came to the UAE to save money mainly to support the education of my brothers. But it seems our dreams will not be fulfilled.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, I was earning around 2,000 AED ($544). I barely earn 1,000 AED ($272) now. I used to send 800 to 1,000 AED ($217 to 272) to support my family in Pakistan but since the start of COVID-19, I have sent money by borrowing it from friends in Dubai. Now I am in debt of 2,500 AED ($680). I have no option but to borrow more if the situation does not normalize.
I have a family back in Kerala. The only reason I came to Dubai is to take care of them. I had to mortgage my wife’s gold to pay for my recruitment fee. Only a few months after I came here, my father got sick. I took some additional amount as loan to pay for his treatment. I have a lot of financial responsibilities. If I lost my job, the loan alone would kill me.
I have a family of 5 members. My parents are old, and they have special needs including medicines and nutritious food. I could not get a job here, so I sold my mother’s jewellery and took a loan of INR 80,000 ($1,071) from a local moneylender at 5% monthly interest rate. I worked in Abu Dhabi for 7 months and got paid for only 3 months. Now I am back to India. I have a huge loan on my shoulder. I have a family to take care of. It scares me a lot just thinking about what I am going to feed my family tomorrow.
My whole family depends on my salary. I have no other source of income. My family is very worried about our finances now that I lost my job. I had to pay INR 70,000 ($937) as requirement fee. We did not have that kind of money, so we had to take a loan. I spent all my savings to pay it back. Now I am struggling to even buy food.
I was stuck there for 4 months because all international flights were suspended. During that period, all I could think about was my family. I did not have money to send them. Every bite of food I took here, I remembered my family. It pained me knowing that they are struggling to buy food. We have no farmlands like other people in the village. We have no other source of income.
I have a huge debt on my back. I had to borrow 1,000 AED ($217 ) to buy air ticket to come back home. It had only been 6 months since I went to Dubai. I had not paid the loan I had taken to pay recruitment fee yet. I have a family to take care of. There is no job here in my village. I do not know what to do next. I am in a lot of mental tension now.
I am the only earning member in my family. My family depended on my salary which I have not been able to send in 5 months. We are all worried about the future, about how we are going to survive without money. I cannot sleep at night because of all the tension. My father had a heart operation last year. He is also a patient of tuberculosis. My father is on medication for eight thousand Indian rupees ($107) a month. We are facing a very difficult time.
I have not sent money to my family in five months. They know that the company has not paid anything. I asked them to borrow money from lenders for now to buy food and other essentials. I thought I would pay back once I got my salary from the company. The company fired me, and we have not got any settlement money yet. The lenders come to my home every morning to ask for money. They charge 5% interest rate a month. I am helpless here. I cannot do anything unless I get paid.
I was very upset because of what the company did. They pressurized us to sign our own resignation letter. I could not get out of the country for four months. At that time, I did not have a single penny to buy food. I used to eat food by borrowing money from my friends and relatives. My family are in the same state of despair. We do not have money to buy food. My wife does not have money to buy milk for our children. My family is starving and there is nothing I can do.
I came back to India after I lost my job in July. I already have a lot of debt on my back. The loss of my job hit my mother the hardest. She was worried about me and the family. She had high blood pressure. Around the first week of August, her health started to decline rapidly. I did not have any money. My neighbours lent me INR 5,000 ($67) and I took her to the hospital. Her health did not improve and she passed away on 9 August 2020. The company took everything away from me. I lost my mother because of my job.
My family depended on my salary. We have no other source of income. There are 11 members in my family. Who will take care of them now? The company fired me ruthlessly and snatched my only source of income. My brothers had planted some paddy and corn, but the flood destroyed everything. When there is heavy rain, the water enters our home. I am worried all day. I cannot sleep all night. There are no other jobs that I can do in the village. What will I do now?
In addition to the other pressures they have, migrant workers are also facing increased prejudice and discrimination in the wake of the pandemic.
Things are getting worse day by day. There are a lot of trolls on the internet about COVID-19. I see some of them are directly attacking migrant workers saying “COVID-19 has spread because of the migrant workers staying in GCC countries.” It is hurtful and insensitive. We all became migrant workers with a desire to live a decent life. All migrants work hard, like the way the people here work. We would like to be considered and respected like other labourers in the world.
The company manager told us to sign a document. He thrust the papers towards us and said, “if you don’t sign this document, I will call the police and send you to jail.” The document stated that due to COVID-19, the company’s contract was terminated, and I am not working. It also said the company is providing accommodation so I have to agree to not get paid a salary and will not contest this in any legal way.
Kabita, a cleaner from Nepal working in Doha, Qatar