The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region — it is now known as the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf — that hosts about 23 million migrant workers (International Labour Organization, 2017) is riddled with problems that are particularly related to the discrimination of women migrant workers. Most of the migrant workforce which dominates the workspace of the GCC region — accounting for about three-quarters of the workforce of the region (ILO, 2017) — hails from the South Asian and South-east Asian countries, and are on temporary contracts and mostly engaged in low-wage occupations.
A thread of vulnerability
Women account for 39% of migrant workers in the GCC (International Labour Organization, 2017) and the feminisation of the workforce across multiple sectors of the economy demonstrates a growing trend. Women migrants, who are in the skilled category are mainly nurses in the organised health industry; those in the semi-skilled or unskilled category are domestic workers, care workers, cleaning crew, manufacturing workers, salon staff and salespersons. These workers are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. For instance, domestic workers, who are mostly women, are greatly vulnerable to abuse owing to the very nature of their workspace.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the vulnerabilities of women migrant workers. For health workers it is more about the deterioration of their working conditions than the problem of losing their jobs. While interviewing women working across the broad spectrum of jobs, a senior nursing staff said, “The government wanted nurses to be deployed at the COVID centres, and all the hospitals under the Ministry were asked to send their staff. The private hospitals on the other hand were asked not to function. This drastically increased the burden on the government hospitals.” As a result, private hospital staff were asked to go on unpaid leave during the lockdown and the Ministry staff could not even take leave as the situation was declared an emergency.
Stress in the health sector
In many countries, the work hours of nurses in many countries were extended from eight hours to 12 hours without overtime remuneration — that too in challenging working conditions. A government nurse in Kuwait, recounted, “Initially, our doctor asked us not to use excess gloves and masks because of the fear of falling short of these supplies. So only the nurses at the point of care were allowed to wear a mask. But then the cases started to increase, and we were allowed to wear a mask.”
Another one of them told us, I was assigned the triage area. The personal protective equipment (PPE) gown, mask, and face shield were there, but we were not using gloves; we were using sanitisers. I had to be there continuously every day for three months, from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.; I had to stand continuously, taking temperature for each patient. This was stressful for my back; this was difficult work for me.”
One of our respondents, working in Saudi Arabia, recounted, “The area where I stay was completely locked down due to a large number of cases, we had just one open road. Many hospitals gave leave to staff staying there, but my hospital asked us to continue to commute to work. It was stressful not knowing whether we would catch the infection, as we were also exposing our children and other family members.” A staff working in Kuwait, shared her anxiety. “We used to wear two N95 masks, but there was no social distancing. The staff from different wards travelled together to and from work. This was very risky as workers with asthma and respiratory problems travelled by the same bus.”
Even in January 2021, many of these nurses from different countries had not taken leave, including their annual leave, except if they were COVID-19 positive. Even those who could manage to get off days could not travel home, which added to the immense mental stress. Amidst all the pandemic chaos, our respondents sounded relieved that they somehow kept a job and monthly pay; many of their spouses had lost jobs and had families waiting for their monetary assistance in India.
For semi-skilled workers
Many of the semi-skilled and unskilled workers found themselves in a bind when they lost their jobs, wages and their accommodation too. When we spoke to another staff in early 2021, her visa was about to expire, and she was searching for a job. She worked in a salon in Kuwait owned by a local woman who had provided her with shared accommodation, salary and decent working hours. The salon had 30 married women workers from South and South-east Asia. The salon first closed temporarily in March 2020 and all the workers were given accommodation and food till October, which was deducted from their indemnity benefit. However, the salon soon went bankrupt in October and the workers had to vacate without benefits.
A social worker we spoke to described the situation of women working in vulnerable sectors during COVID-19. The vulnerability of the workers has worsened during COVID-19 because of the severe restrictions to mobility. “These exploited women include domestic workers, beauty parlour workers and cleaning crew in hospitals and big companies. Those staying in employer’s premises, especially housemaids are more vulnerable. They did not know what was happening outside, about [the] corona situation. Many women working here, especially housemaids, do not have any medium for getting news about the current situation. Some do not even have [a] phone, while most have only basic phones.” Their communication to the outside world including family is restricted and it is difficult for an outsider to reach them, a hard truth we learned while trying to contact these women for this article.
We spoke to a 60-year-old housemaid who had returned to India from the United Arab Emirates. She had health problems and her employer did not want to be saddled with her health problems during the pandemic. Her maid visa that had an insurance coverage of 600 dirhams, was just not enough to cover her health costs.
Some of the more vulnerable workers were the ones working ‘illegally’. For example, there was a woman who had emigrated on a child-care visa, but lost her job as her former employers were concerned about the safety of their child during COVID-19. The woman then started working as a housemaid with very low wages but was reluctant to ask for a raise, as she feared being reported. There was also another woman who emigrated as a housemaid in 2008, received her last salary in March 2020, after which her employer gave her the option to work without pay or to return home. Some who found themselves in more challenging situations have quit their jobs and returned home penniless; some have had to borrow money for the air ticket home. Situations such as these have made women workers more vulnerable and susceptible to exploitation.
Whether professionally skilled or unskilled, migrant women workers have not had it easy in a foreign land where the discrimination and exploitation they faced were compounded by the novel coronavirus pandemic. This definitely focuses light on the lacunae persisting in the creation of women-centric, rights-based policies to safeguard migrants.
Ginu Zacharia Oommen is currently Member of the Kerala Public Service Commission and formerly Visiting Professor at the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’homme (FMSH), Paris, France. Anu Abraham is PhD Scholar, IIT Madras and Assistant Professor at the School of Economics, NMIMS (deemed to be) University, Mumbai