Covid-19 Impact on GCC Labour Market

Author:   K.Ranju Rangan* & Fathima Shabnam**


The bonding of employers and migrant workers in the Middle East is governed by a discriminatory and abusive system of sponsorship that ties a worker’s residency status to his or her employer. For their quality of life and housing, migrants depend entirely on their employer. They have always been undervalued and unnoticed in their contributions to the economy of their country and destination countries. Shortly after the outbreak, lock-downs and forced repatriation brought not only market imbalances, but also fear and loss of jobs among migrants. In addition, countries with greater dependence on migrant workers have shown insufficient defense against job cessation, resulting in far greater initial job losses and repatriation.


While repatriation should have been the last resort and more attempts should be made to ensure the continuity of business and the income of employment and workers, the latter has been restored to many large businesses. Companies that had relied on the funds from progressive billings of project sites could not withstand the impact. Addressing the economy, employment and social problems, the consequences of this crisis call for the generosity of petrodollar-driven world economies that have struggled to safeguard the rights of migrants. The Qatar government has launched a 75-billion-riyal ($20.6bn) stimulus package to help companies maintain operations and retain jobs, particularly those in the financial difficulties of paying salaries and rentals. When companies apply for new visa grants, the government should take sufficient care to assess if the business is financially sound, whether its business strategy is viable and if it has the resources to cope with small economic crises.   More importantly, there is no way of deciding if it is necessary to employ too many employees or whether the project requirements are proportionate to the visa application.

No Decent Work

Migrant domestic worker’s welfare and the extent to which their fundamental human rights are covered are generally left to employers’ benevolence. While some employers value the dignity and human rights of domestic workers, others complain that workers from Bangladesh are extremely unhygienic. Female migrant domestic workers who try to flee exploitation and assault circumstances are mostly re-victimised, but the truth is that at least 1.2% of those who flee are not abused, but embroiled in extramarital affairs or employers are plundered. Women migrant domestic workers also face higher risks when they are sent out to perform duties such as tossing out the trash, cleaning toilets, taking care of a COVID infected person, etc., they are refused access by both the employers and even the government for PPE’s. Restrictions on sending money to home countries and employers retaining monthly wages on account of remittances restrictions have led to further physiological and emotional tensions.

COVID19 and disruption of labour Market

Even before governments adopted steps to “flatten” the infection curve, the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant effect on mobility and migration. Travel controls are imposed for virus control, including the prohibition of crossing borders, the cancellation of new visas and forced repatriation of workers. The non-availability of data on migrants was an even more complex problem for the sending and destination countries. Authorities have failed to accentuate the migrant population in densely settled migrant camps on the outskirts of the cities. Successful labour market strategies are nuanced and include reliable quantitative and qualitative data, including labour migration issues. Statistics on labour migration, however, are important not only for informing policy debates but also in unforeseen circumstances where contingency plans can be established by authorities. In the GCC, but also in countries which provide access to essential age and sex-disaggregated data, data on labour market requirements, employment and skills, employment conditions and wages and social security of migrants remains very fragmented and incomplete.

The COVID-19 response poses several challenges related to data management, in particular, when it relates to data on the wellbeing of the person. The job impacts of COVID-19 are profound, far-reaching and unparalleled. Although there is usually some pause in reducing economic activity resulting in a decrease in jobs, the effect on employment in the current crisis has been immediate and severe as a result of lock-downs and other steps. The slump in air traffic has also brought extreme financial pressure to bear on all stakeholders in the aviation sector.


The results of the study show that both independent employers and companies that supply the workforce often delay, defer or arbitrarily deduct wages for workers in GCC countries. Employers even in their contract with migrants deny contractually assured overtime and end-of- service incentives and violate impunity on a daily basis. Sometimes time-consuming, inefficient, and even leading to reprisals. Besides, with the relaxation of the sponsorship changes laws, some 98 of the 120 employees (Fig:1) interviewed had lost their wages, and the end of services anticipated a shift in the employer to give them a regular salary.

Fig: 1





No of workers interviewed



Lost Monthly Wages



Lost monthly Wages and end-of-service benefits



Forfeited all benefits for a new change in sponsorship



Not getting food



Have accommodation and food no salary



Have accommodation food and reduced salary


Source: Interview of employees

Subcontractors assumed a pay-you as we get paid scheme that left the poor in an even more profound crisis. A common complaint from migrant workers in the GCC before the outbreak of COVID-19 was the non-payment and late payment of wages. Now, after the pandemic, workers offered to be unemployed but not deported in the expectation that a better employer would trap them. Sex workers in the GCC are the other unreported migrants. These groups fall into two categories: women who are trafficked under disappointing promises of settled jobs, whose passports are abducted, who are held in debt by recruiters who are physically, psychologically and sexually abused, forced into prostitution, and women who enter the GCC countries on tourist visas to live and sell sex.

Recognising the severity of the crisis, several governments have taken measures to reduce overcrowding. For example, the government in Bahrain has called on employers to make sure that there are no more than five employees in a room and that each worker is three meters away from each other. In Kuwait, some employees have reportedly been evacuated to alternative accommodation from their labour camps. The government in Qatar has implemented new health and safety guidelines for the protection of employees both at work and dwelling places. It is seeking to enforce tighter hygiene requirements in collaboration with companies. Some GCC governments have announced steps to reduce financial risks to some jobs. For example, the Government of Qatar has given loans to companies to ensure that employees staying in quarantine, isolation or ‘lock-down’ areas continue to be paid. GCC Countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have also agreed to provide financial assistance for companies to pay wages. Still, their programs tend to be structured exclusively to serve their people. Some governments, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, have advised employers that they should ‘mutually consent’ with their workers to take unpaid leave or to make use of their annual leave during this time in an attempt to retain long-term jobs. None of the schemes in place around the GCC was entirely applied to secure the wages of migrant workers in all conditions. There is no clear evidence of the working conditions of migrants in the GCC.

Regulatory Mechanism

The regulatory environment has shifted in recent years, but regulation remains inconsistent and inefficient, rendering public data unreliable. Besides, extreme restrictions on external studies have prevented the documentation of problems for researchers; thus, the literature review and research journalism provide a significant amount of available knowledge. Reducing government spending coupled with investors’ risk-aversion in an economic recession, and the GCC’s struggle to attract investment leads to weak recovery, which will also be subject to supply chain and labour disruption. However, countries such as the UAE and Qatar may respond to faster recovery due to the upcoming mega-programs. Employers must reframe their budget and reduce expenses for business trips, etc., to invest more in labour camp health and sanitation problems to combat the pandemic. At least initially, the employer would bear the incremental costs of delivering such alternatives. Following the COVID pandemic, there is a gap in standards dealing with workplace safety and health, social protection, employment and the privileges of various categories of workers, but this should in no way be taken over by supply chain owners to enslave the underprivileged community of migrant staff.


  1. GCC governments should ensure that migrant workers have fair access to COVID-19 testing and that facilities for self-isolation and access to health care are given for those with symptoms.
  2. Knowledge of the signs of COVID-19 should be disseminated to migrants.
  3. For all migrant workers to have ample food and water and proper sanitation, GCC governments should cooperate with related migrant organisations, missions abroad and labour inspectors.
  4. GCC governments must ensure that adequate financial assistance is given to companies and that it reaches migrants.
  5. It is essential to denounce overcrowded workplaces, and temporary transitional accommodation should be offered.
  6. Health officials should implement measures for mandatory health facilities for domestic migrant workers in coordination with officials of the labour department.



*K. Ranju, an independent researcher and an HR professional from Qatar, is the founder of Exodus Research. In the Gcc countries, he was actively involved in labor migration issues of South-East Asians.

**Fathima Shabnam is a post-graduate in Psychology and currently takes care of the research activities of an organization called ASFAR. She has been actively collaborating with those working in behavioural or social fields concerning their research activities.


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