With no salary or money to pay for flights home, many are trapped in desperate situations in crowded labour camps
Hassan doesn’t know if he will eat today. The 30-year-old Pakistani has lived in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), for over a decade, employed as a construction worker. But when the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, he lost his job. Without his salary he cannot afford to live in the UAE. Nor can he afford to fly home.
“The suffering is too much. We hardly have any food and there’s no support. Since we don’t have any money, we can’t travel from here either,” he says. “How are we going to buy the ticket?”
Hassan and 98 of his colleagues have been left to fend for themselves in a dusty labour camp on the outskirts of the city with little communication from their former employer, a local construction and contracting company. The three-storey U-shaped building with yellow concrete walls contains dozens of shabby dormitories, each packed with metal bunk beds. Social distancing is not possible in such cramped living quarters. The complex is fenced off and guarded by security. A large communal kitchen which was a hive of activity six months ago now lies dormant. There is no food to cook.
The double economic blow of the Covid-19 outbreak and oil price crash has led to hundreds of thousands of job losses in the UAE, where almost 90% of the workforce are migrants. Many out-of-work migrants have been left stranded in the country, which does not afford a social safety net to foreigners.
Early on in the pandemic, the UAE’s government ordered companies employing blue-collar migrant workers to continue to provide them with food and accommodation while they remain in the country, even if they have been made redundant. However, many companies have not complied, leaving the workers dependent on food donations. The government of Dubai did not respond to a request for comment on this.Advertisement
“Guests on-and-off visit and give something. But when nobody comes, we have to starve. We have nothing,” says Hassan.
The need is overwhelming. Some community groups are now distributing donations of hundreds of meals each week.
“The situation is very desperate for these men,” says Claudia Pinto, a member of The House of Om, a meditation and yoga community in Dubai, which recently registered as a charity to provide aid to hungry migrants during the pandemic. “We provide already cooked meals instead of bags of rice and other ingredients to ensure they eat properly and don’t try to sell the donations. They are still under a lot of pressure to send money back to their families. But it’s more important that they eat something.”
The men interviewed say there are under stress from their financial obligations.
Hassan’s salary was 2,000 dirhams (£408) per month. However, two years ago he underwent heart surgery and every month since then his employer has deducted 75% of his salary in instalments, since his medical insurance did not cover the full price of the procedure. Now, he is in danger of his health failing again.
“Medication is mandatory for me since the surgery. I used to get the pills with my medical insurance but that has also been disconnected,” he says. “My medication costs 950 dirhams per month, and I can’t pay for it.”Advertisement
The majority of blue-collar migrant worker’s monthly salaries are often sent overseas in remittances to family in their countries of origin. Most of these workers rely on being paid an end-of-service gratuity payment – included in their contract by law – to take back to their home countries when their jobs end. This gratuity payment is typically the equivalent of one month’s salary per year of employment.
While some countries are organising a limited number of repatriation flights for stranded workers, all of the men interviewed by the Guardian say they cannot bear to leave until they are paid what they are owed.
“In the past two months, our labour-related cases have tripled,” says Barney Almazar, an attorney at Gulf Law who also provides free legal aid to migrant workers at monthly clinics at the Philippine embassy in Abu Dhabi and consulate in Dubai. “It’s really been a big problem with many businesses not being able to pay rent and overhead expenses, resulting in some companies closing and unable to pay employees.”
Ansar Abbas, 39, from Punjab, Pakistan, is owed 10 months of unpaid salary from 2019 and has also now lost his job. He is married with two children aged 10 and four and cannot face returning to them empty-handed.
“It has been over a year since I was able to send any money home. Because I am starving, I can’t send anything,” he says. “We are sick and tired of this place and we want to escape. But I can’t go back with nothing.”
Meanwhile, some of the men at the camp still technically have jobs and are going to work every day. But even they haven’t been paid. Shahadat, 28, from Bangladesh, is still working despite not receiving a salary since January. He supports his ageing parents and would like to get married and start a family of his own. But this is not possible without an income.
“I love work, I want to work in Dubai,” he says. “Nobody is listening to us. Nobody can feel our pain. They are not thinking of our family, or lives, our future.”