NICHOLAS WILCOX WRITES – Since FIFA, the international governing body of football, awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, more than a few eyebrows were raised as to just how the Persian Gulf nation secured the games. Rumors of bribery and corruption surfaced. So did stories about the exceptionally poor treatment and working conditions of the migrant workers brought in by the Qatari government to help build tournament facilities and other large infrastructure projects that some are not just calling stadiums, but mausoleums.
Other countries in the region that are heavily reliant on foreign workers – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates – have also gained notoriety, and the ratio of foreign workers to citizens is heavily skewed towards foreigners. In the United Arab Emirates alone the ratio of foreign workers to citizens is nearly nine to one.
As fear of the spread of coronavirus grips the Middle East, thousands of migrant workers, mostly from Southeast Asian countries, have been put on intense lockdown in housing structures that do not meet even their most basic needs. In Qatar, overcrowding and an inadequate number of bathrooms have turned these housing structures into hotbeds for the spread of coronavirus. Already, hundreds of cases have been reported. Despite all this, World Cup workers are forced to carry on as though it is “business as usual,” riding to work in buses packed with up to 60 people and working long shifts with little to no safety measures in place. What’s more, in Oman and Saudi Arabia, where lockdown orders are also in place, free-lance laborers whose employers are not providing food allowances are on the brink of starvation.
In response, migrant worker advocacy groups and other NGOs, including Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Resource Centre, have started worker rights campaigns and have written letters of protest to the governments of these nations. Fortunately, these efforts seem to be paying off; King Salaman of Saudi Arabia announced that he would cover the medical expenses of anyone diagnosed with the coronavirus, while Qatar has set up an 800 million dollar fund to help companies better support their employees financially.
But there is still work to be done: A 2.4 billion dollar aid package that the Saudi government put forth does not apply to the millions of foreign workers living there, and workers in Qatar say they don’t always receive their government-funded salaries.
The Persian Gulf is one of the most highly migrant worker dependent regions in the world, yet it has some of the most regressive labor laws in the world. As Lynn Maalouf, the Middle East Research Director for Amnesty International, put it: “Gulf countries… have utterly failed to protect migrant workers, and treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve.”
If there’s any silver lining to this global pandemic, it is that marginalized workers in the Middle East will continue to raise their voices, resulting in better work conditions and essential worker rights.