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Gulf Guide Chapter 1 - Passport_Witheld
Gulf Guide Chapter 1 - Passport_Witheld

Illustration: Marcelle Louw for GIJN


» Guide

Chapter 1 – Best Practices and Suggested Topics in the COVID Era

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This section was written by’s Vani Saraswathi.

Reporting around labor migration in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is often framed around portraying migrant workers as victims, and does not recognize their agency or adequately capture their aspirational journey for a better life for their families and themselves.

When COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill in 2020, the pandemic was portrayed as a global equalizer by many, including by the media. But within a few weeks, it became clear that the pandemic was not equalizing. On the contrary, it threw into sharp relief the existing fault lines of discriminatory policies. Nowhere was this more true than in the Gulf and Levant.

Three Trends in COVID-era Reporting

  • Local media in the Gulf region largely toe the government line and repeat press releases and data without digging deeper into the context.
  • Media in migrant-originating countries reported on wage theft, families torn apart, and workers being caught in deadly conditions.
  • International journalists, many of whom work remotely, report using broad strokes with little awareness of on-the-ground conditions.

No doubt, the problems faced by migrants during the pandemic are to a large degree similar to the problems they faced before, particularly when destination countries were undergoing an economic recession. However, pandemic reporting needs to closely follow the basic guidelines of health reporting: do no harm. With information overload and readers’ attention often spanning no more than a tweet, and the lifespan of news reports reduced even further due to 24/7 news cycles, the temptation to simplify can be high.

With the growth of citizen journalism, we are also seeing an increase of mainstream media curating social media commentary and posts as source material. But it’s imperative that reporters perform due diligence on the authenticity of these online personalities and their observations.

This is particularly critical when reporting on health. Beat journalism is not common in the Gulf region, which means those reporting on the pandemic are often those who are available, and not necessarily trained in health reporting. It’s worth keeping in mind these guidelines for reporting on health, particularly in an emergency situation:

  • Educate readers and inform their lifestyle and practices.
  • Avoid spreading panic.
  • Don’t marginalize any one group.
  • Hold governments and policymakers accountable.
  • Highlight risky behaviors borne of deliberate negligence.
  • Bring to light neglected areas of policy and governance that aggravate the spread of disease.
  • Avoid offering health advice, unless from authorized medical professionals or agencies.
  • Report with regular updates, as a pandemic cannot be covered in one or two news pieces alone.
  • Respect privacy and confidentiality of not only those infected but those affected by the fallout of the pandemic, keeping in mind those who are vocal and critical are likely to face retribution from governments and employers, making the situation of workers more precarious.
  • Explore non-health-related repercussions of the pandemic that governments and individuals should prepare for, including but not restricted to:
    • The weakening of labor laws.
    • Increases in wage theft.
    • Increased hurdles to access to justice.
    • Recruitment corruption leading to forced labor and debt bondage.
    • Pandemic restrictions being used to restrict workers’ freedoms.

Access to data is difficult in the best of times in the GCC and Levant, but during COVID-19 many of these states not only published data regularly, but also disaggregated these statistics by nationality, unfairly painting migrants as the main clusters spreading infections.

Context Is Key

There is already a widespread misconception that migrants pose a problem to public health and that their hygiene is suspect, a dangerous narrative that has been used to justify their ghettoization and removal from areas where “families” and citizens reside. The pandemic only fueled this worrying narrative, so coverage must adequately address the decades of poor urban planning and migration management that were more likely than these stereotypes to play a role in infection rates.

Listed below are some of the common stories that were told repeatedly, both regionally and internationally, during the pandemic. They underscore the importance of adding proper context about the far bigger problems associated with transnational migration.

  • Domestic workers living on the streets after employers throw them out.
  • Workers sleeping in public parks and outdoors as employers failed to provide accommodation.
  • Certain areas of the country, popular with migrants, were repeatedly put under lockdown.
  • Migrants stranded as home countries refused to take them back.
  • An almost-exclusive migrants angle to the spread of infections.
  • Areas with large migrant populations being identified as hotspots.
Gulf Guide - Employers

Illustration: Marcelle Louw for GIJN

The root cause of these problems — how both individual and corporate employers play the most important role in the well-being of migrants — is rarely addressed in these stories. Even though there have been reforms to the Kafala system, a migrant worker’s residence and work are still tied to that one individual or entity, who is responsible for their welfare in good times and bad.

Overlooked Storylines Need More Exploration

What are the kinds of stories critically in need of reporting now?

    • The pandemic has severely affected the origin countries of migrants, as well.
    • Will this lead to the easing of regulations meant to protect workers?
    • Will there be a race to the bottom among origin countries?
    • How will the recruitment environment change in origin countries as restrictions on mobility ease?
    • What is the responsibility of businesses in destination countries whose employees are now stuck in their home countries?
    • How can wages and entitlements be recouped?
    • Are embassies and consulates being equipped with resources to deal with these issues?

All of the GCC countries now have force majeure regulations that allow for contract change – purportedly with the consent of workers, but in practice without consent.

Further issues to consider include:

    • Capacities of justice systems to deal with cases of non-payment.
    • Are governments taking action to ensure employers are not using the pandemic as an excuse to violate the rights of workers?
    • Are businesses that had flawed and abusive practices before the pandemic now trying to justify these practices?
    • Is the pandemic story only about lower-income workers? What about citizens and white-collar workers?
    • What insurance exists for “essential” workers, who are almost always migrants?
    • What would the pre-departure health check look like now? In analyzing the list of requisite tests that currently exist, what role would the Gulf countries’ pre-immigration screening process play?
    • Ask if your reporting is making the mistake of treating health care facilities in the Gulf as a singular entity. Each country has a different system and different levels of access. For example, the flu vaccine in Kuwait is available only to citizens, whereas in Qatar it’s available to both citizens and workers without cost.
    • Going forward, ask what are the costs of healthcare in the region, and who is responsible for it?

When considering the gender angle in your reporting, consider the following:

    • What examples are there of women’s difficulty in accessing different government mechanisms, including health and justice? Consider both domestic workers and those in other sectors.
    • Are you including groups in the margins that are criminalized, like the LGBTQ community, and how they can be further estranged from health services?
    • Is the pandemic being used to further isolate women and control their movement?
    • Domestic violence has been on the rise across the world during the lockdown periods. How does this manifest in the region?

Don’t overlook the social and political environments, as the Gulf countries are undergoing broader change amid their migration issues and the pandemic.

    • Trade unions (TU’s) and civil society organizations (CSO’s) are banned in most of these countries, and where they exist, they function under many restrictions. This weakens migrants’ rights even further. Informal civil society sprung into action to help those in distress when most needed, but these informal responses have resulted in ad hoc, non-permanent solutions.
    • Trade unions and civil society groups also help bring the voices of workers to global platforms, including UN bodies. Often, the intent of governments in the region is to stifle those voices.
The Pandemic and Beyond

A post-pandemic world may not exist in the way we imagine. But what are some of the stories worth considering as we move forward?

    • The role and importance of care workers.
    • Introducing portable social security for migrant workers.
    • Remote working and mechanization of critical jobs. What is the future of work in the region?
    • There are countries on the brink of bankruptcy — like Lebanon– or with very poor economic prospects — like Bahrain — that have a high dependence on migrant labor. What does this mean for the rights of workers and terms of migration in those distressed nations?

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