DUBAI: Long a lifeline for families back home, migrant workers in oil-rich Gulf Arab states now find themselves trapped by the coronavirus pandemic, losing jobs, running out of money and desperate to return to their home countries as Covid-19 stalks their labor camps.
Whether on the island of Bahrain, hidden in the industrial neighborhoods behind Dubai’s skyscrapers or in landlocked cities of Saudi Arabia, a growing number of workers have contracted the virus or been forced into mass quarantines. Many have been put on unpaid leave or fired.
The United Arab Emirates is even threatening the laborers’ home countries that won’t take them back with possible quotas on workers in the future something that would endanger a crucial source of remittances for South Asian countries.
Some 35 million laborers work in the six Arab Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as in Jordan and Lebanon, according to U.N. figures. Foreigners far outnumber locals in the Gulf states, accounting for over 80% of the population in some countries.
Gulf states have increased coronavirus testing for residents and citizens alike. The UAE, for example, says 10,000 workers are being screened daily in Abu Dhabi’s industrial district.
Many of the migrants hold low-paying construction jobs, laboring in scorching heat to transform the region’s deserts into cities teeming with highways, skyscrapers, luxury hotels and marbled malls. Others work as cleaners, drivers, waiters and in jobs traditionally shunned by locals. Women often find jobs as nannies or maids.
The virus represents a new danger, especially in their living quarters. Krishna Kumar, the head of the Abu Dhabi-based Kerala Social Center, named after the Indian state from which many laborers come, said up to 10 workers share a room in some labor camps in the region.