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Gulf Guide Living Conditions
Gulf Guide Living Conditions

Illustration: Marcelle Louw for GIJN


» Guide

Chapter 2 – COVID-19 and Migrant Workers in the Gulf

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While the Gulf states have largely reopened their key sectors, migrants remain vulnerable to employment insecurity and exploitation. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many of the pre-existing issues that migrant workers face in the Gulf region, including non-payment of wages, exclusion from social protections, and limited access to healthcare. The migration systems and practices in the region not only render workers more vulnerable to negative health outcomes but place them in financial jeopardy.

The following chapter provides context to key COVID-19-related issues and examples of good coverage, alongside tips for reporting on the crisis as well as an analysis of Gulf nations’ vaccination rollout policies.

Key Background Reporting Tips

Unequal Access to Healthcare

In general, migrant workers have disparate access to healthcare across the Gulf states (read more about this here). There has been a marked difference in the treatment of domestic and foreign national patients with COVID-19, particularly those from lower-income occupations. Migrant workers also often have underlying vulnerabilities that either increases their exposure to COVID-19 or need for other healthcare, as a result of their working and living conditions. As migrants return to work, protective measures such as temperature checks are being put in place, but workers’ access to treatment remains diminished.

Domestic workers in particular have reduced access to medical care as their access depends on their employers taking them to receive medical treatment. Here are two relevant reporting examples:

The Precarity of Bangladeshi Low-Income Migrant Workers During the Time of COVID-19

Born into uncertainty: Pandemic aggravates the woes of migrant mothers and their newborns

Unemployment and Economic Vulnerability

Migrant workers account for the majority of the labor force in the Gulf states, and workers of all income classes have been affected by the pandemic’s economic crisis. In Qatar, government measures aimed at protecting salaries and jobs applied primarily to its own citizens. Combined with their exclusion from social welfare systems, migrant workers have also struggled to access food and pay for rent or return tickets to their home countries. These issues continue to severely affect workers, particularly those who cannot or do not want to return home. The impact on migrants’ families in origin countries, many of whom rely on remittances, has also been devastating.

Some examples of writing on this area:

Life of luxury: Dubai’s huge service sector faces unsure future

COVID-19 and the Crisis of Migrant Worker Housing

G4S employees in UAE live on food donations

Detention and Forced Deportation

Irregular migrant workers are always vulnerable to administrative detention and deportation because of their immigration status. The conditions of their detention are often unhygienic and crowded, making workers susceptible to communicable diseases and infections, including COVID-19. While some countries initially reported efforts to reduce overcrowding in detention centers, there was little transparency on this process and administrative detention continues to be practiced. Saudi Arabia’s mass detention of Ethiopian workers is a particularly poignant example of this practice.

Some relevant examples:

Immigration Detention in Saudi Arabia During COVID-19

Ethiopian migrants held in Saudi Arabia call it ‘hellish’

‘We drink from the toilet’: migrants tell of hellish Saudi detention centres

Gulf Guide - Wage Theft

Illustration: Marcelle Louw for GIJN

Wage Theft and Changing Employment Terms

Many workers suffer from wage disputes that pre-date COVID-19, but these issues are now even more difficult to settle because of interruptions to court procedures and reduced government capacity. Even without the pandemic, obtaining enforceable resolutions against employers is a long, uphill battle. COVID-19 has introduced several additional obstacles, including reduced community support and fewer opportunities to change jobs, which makes it more difficult for workers to stay in their host country and fight their case. Once a migrant returns home, it is often difficult to continue with a case unless they’ve signed over power of attorney, which is a costly process that most cannot afford. In anticipation of the many cases of wage theft that may transpire because of COVID-19, a coalition of international organizations have been calling for a transnational justice system to protect workers wages and due benefits.

Other relevant examples:

How coronavirus shutdown affected Qatar’s migrant workers

“Wage theft,” a bane of Gulf returnees

Emirates Group company Transguard abandons its workers, drives them deeper into debt bondage

Vulnerable Living and Working Conditions

From the outset of the crisis, observers and Gulf governments recognized the risks that workers’ living and working conditions posed to the spread of the virus. Government officials often appeared more concerned with the spread of the virus rather than its effect on migrant workers, with halfhearted, and sometimes counterproductive efforts to reduce crowd density. In some cases, workers reported being forced to move into camps with terrible conditions and that officials failed to properly communicate. Additionally, even during the strictest periods of the lockdowns, migrant workers were still going into work on construction sites, in grocery stores, and other service industries. Protections were often cosmetic at best and not effectively enforced.

More examples:

Laid Off and Locked Up: Virus Traps Domestic Workers in Arab States

Migrant Worker Accommodation Driving COVID Infections

Domestic Workers: Bearing the Brunt of Invisibility, Isolation and Inequality

Coronavirus leaves Gulf migrant workers stranded

Racism and Xenophobia

Racism and xenophobia feature in the everyday experiences of migrant workers, and they have been amplified since the outset of the COVID-19 crisis. Migrants have been vilified for allegedly spreading the virus due to their cramped living conditions, even though they have little control over this. In some cases, this has led to conversations and increased awareness of migrants’ conditions. In others, it has increased calls to reduce the migrant worker population and conduct mass deportations. Racism and xenophobia also affect how workers receive treatment and get excluded from government responses.

Some examples:

For Persian Gulf Migrant Workers, the Pandemic Has Amplified Systemic Discrimination

The COVID-19 crisis is fueling more racist discourse towards migrant workers in the Gulf

Migrant workers face racism and rampant human rights violations across the Gulf

Reporting Tips:
  • Many migrant workers are taking to social media to vent their frustrations either with their employers or government responses. Twitter, TikTok, and Facebook are good places to keep track of these issues.
  • Tap into community networks and local organizations. Organizations in origin countries may be easier to access. They can link you to others who are willing to share their story. Rather than ask for workers’ contact details, share your number with them and let workers reach out to you when and if they are comfortable.
  • Over the past several years, there has been an increase in the number of incoming workers, especially women, from African countries. While they do not have the same levels of diaspora support, these groups are active, particularly on Facebook. Keeping in touch and developing relationships through these groups is the only way to reach out to some of the most vulnerable workers in the region.
  • Workers’ safety is paramount, and make sure they understand the risks they are taking by talking to you. Try to move conservations to secure platforms like Signal.
  • If you do manage to meet workers in person at a labor camp or other accommodation, make a clear request that only a few workers come forward as representatives to share their stories. Otherwise, the situation can quickly escalate into a high-risk situation and large gatherings of migrants will attract unwanted attention. Also, ensure that you take appropriate social distracting and other protective measures in light of COVID-19.
  • Fact-check government claims about their responses and measures by speaking with workers or local organizations. There is often much more than meets the eye to official accounts about how migrant workers are being treated.
  • Always keep the question of gender in mind. There is almost always a disproportionate impact on migrant women, no matter if they are domestic workers or working in other sectors. Also, trans and non-binary migrants are likely to face increased scrutiny and discrimination.
  • Do your research beforehand and be considerate of the time that you take from organizations that are already often working at overcapacity.
Security Advice

The Gulf states have state-of-the-art digital surveillance tools, so assume that all communication on social media, mobile messaging systems, and emails are being monitored and scrutinized.

The safest form of communication is via a feature (flip) phone, as using a smartphone may leave digital traces. While messaging apps like Signal provide more secure communication, the security that smartphones provide all but disappear once it is taken from you or your source.

Notably, activists and journalists often have their phones confiscated in Gulf states. So two-step verification and disappearing messages are a must. However, also keep in mind that encrypted messaging apps are themselves flagged by state security agencies. Additionally, the individual use of a virtual private network (VPN) is either illegal (Oman) or highly restricted in many Gulf states (Saudi Arabia and UAE). Similarly, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls were blocked in many Gulf nations early on during the pandemic and many migrants continue to have difficulty accessing free VoIP services to call home.

Never save your sources’ names or other identifying information to your contacts. Instead, use codes for physical notes to identify the names or other details of sources or interviewees.

While migrant workers may unwittingly undermine security concerns, primarily due to lack of awareness, do not reveal their identities while reporting sensitive stories. In addition, avoid sensitive conversations on social media, even if it is via private or direct messages. Taking conversations offline is the best way to protect your sources.

COVID Vaccination Update for the Gulf

All of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have notionally included migrants (all foreign residents) in their free COVID-19 vaccination and booster drives. However, access levels differ not just from country to country, but within a country as well, based on economic class, place of residence, and immigration status. All of the Gulf states except for Kuwait, have, on paper at least, non-discriminatory protocols on vaccine eligibility, with the most vulnerable prioritized regardless of nationality. In practice, citizens were initially given preference, either by design or by making vaccination centers serving that population more accessible and less crowded.


Given the vulnerability and ‘temporariness’ of migrant workers, and the large-scale job loss, there may be a risk of those who received one dose of the vaccine being unable to stay around long enough in Gulf countries to receive a second dose.

None of the GCC states have explicitly stated that irregular or undocumented workers will be eligible for vaccination without penalties being levied against them. According to research and interviews conducted by, there is no firm definition of frontline or essential workers in the region. While healthcare workers have been prioritized, security guards, delivery personnel, and hospitality staff are rarely included on these lists. Nor are domestic workers, even though they often double as care workers within households. While there were some regulations issued on guaranteeing wages while in isolation or quarantine, workers say that they are rarely paid for any time off taken to recuperate from side effects that can develop from vaccination.

New Recruitment

We are seeing a fresh wave of migrant worker recruits, and this means “vaccine passports” are an emerging trend. In some GCC states, vaccination is now mandatory for working in specific sectors and employers are increasingly requiring inoculation and/or boosters against COVID-19 as a condition for hiring.

Another key component to consider: Who pays for the vaccines in home countries, particularly if it is part of the recruitment process and for the purpose of traveling to take up their new jobs? Many migrants, especially first-timers, are healthy individuals under the age of 35, and may not yet be eligible for the vaccine or subsequent booster shots. In India, for example, government centers offer free vaccinations, but the eligibility criteria gives precedence to the 60+ age group and 45+ age group with co-morbidities. And in some private hospitals in India that are approved to give vaccinations or boosters, there can be a cost involved (for effectively paying to jump to the front of the line). However, recruitment processes do not allow for long waiting periods of six to eight weeks, which is the ideal time between the first and second doses of two-shot vaccines.

It is important to consider GCC’s vaccination policies in terms of recruitment as well. Will domestic workers or healthcare workers be vaccinated on arrival before being deployed to their workplace? While it is too early to be certain about the complications that may arise due to vaccine protocols, we do know that this will exacerbate inequalities and reporting around the issue must consider that.

Countries are constantly updating vaccination policies and protocols. For instance, in Qatar, a vaccination center was set up in early April 2021 to cater only to lower-income migrants.

Information and Data Sources about COVID Vaccine Distribution in the Gulf:

Saudi Arabia






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