What’s Happening to Migrant Workers in These Times of Crisis?

Migrant workers looking to work in the Middle East do so through the Kafala system, which is defined by the ILO as a system meant to “provide temporary, rotating labor that could be rapidly brought into the country in an economic boom and expelled during less affluent periods.” The definition itself shows us how such a system can enable the abuse of migrant workers, as it is, in its heart, exploitative of their labor. This is against their dignity, reducing them from family members, and loved community members to workers in households that more often than not disrespect and harm them.

The Kafala system legally binds the workers’ immigration status to their employer, meaning they can’t leave the country or change places of employment without their employer’s permission. This helps abusive employers trap their victims and isolate them from the outside world. In some cases, a migrant person working in a household loses their ability to freely communicate with their family and friends as their phone is confiscated by their employer – the family whose household they are entering. Rather than being treated as humans whose dignity matters as well, these employers see them as nothing more than the labor they provide. To them, they are not human; they are minders of children, they are specialist housekeepers and cooks, with no need for sleep. Some workers reported only being able to sleep for 4 hours before they were woken, needing to tend to oppressive and often unreasonable demands. Migrant Rights, an organization that advocated for the rights of migrant workers in the GCC, showcases what it’s like to be a migrant worker in the Gulf region under the Kafala system in this interactive video that takes less than 5 minutes.

Ethiopian migrant workers outside the Ethiopian consulate in Lebanon, by Flo Husseini.

But these hellish conditions existed before the COVID-19 crisis affected the communities. How are these individuals coping now, and how are the migrant workers affected by this added stress? First being the most obvious, migrant workers are placed at higher risk of being infected, and there is a language barrier that is not being breached when explaining health protocols. Workers are scared, at risk, and staying home is a luxury that many cannot afford, having not been paid for up to 5 months. The current living conditions for migrant workers also do not help, as most workers live in crowded dorms that make social distancing impossible. This is made worse by some countries’ forced deportation of laborers, Amnesty reports. The economic crisis resulted by the pandemic is hitting workers hard. In Lebanon, Ethiopian domestic workers were being abandoned at the Ethiopian consulate’s doorsteps as their employers could no longer afford to pay their wages due to the worsening economic situation. Some workers had not been paid up to 3 months worth of wages, and repatriation flights are getting more expensive by the day.

Protestors outside the Ethiopian consulate in Lebanon, by Flo Husseini.

So what can be done? For starters, people interested in learning more about the value of human life and protecting human dignity can gain curated knowledge by taking the Certified Training Program (CTP) that the World Youth Aalliance offers. The CTP program is made up of 7 chapters that help the reader build their own viewpoints, as well as give them a starting point for their research in understanding and promoting human dignity. In order to help endangered migrant workers, we as individuals can start by reading more about the subject, and educating ourselves and others when we recognize that we’re coming up short so that we’re better equipped to aid those around us. If you’re in a position to donate to help the workers pay rent or pay for expensive repatriation tickets, please do, and if you are not in a position to aid financially, you can always spread awareness or send links to people that might be able to.

Published: Sept. 1, 2020

Written by Huda AlJeshi, WYAME Online Intern from Bahrain