Companies must act responsibly towards migrant workers

ARTICLE | 29 April 2020

Migrant workers in Dubai’s hotel sector are hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. As the tourism sector initiates massive layoffs, many workers can neither support themselves nor return to their home countries. Companies employing migrant workers must take steps, including rapid risk assessments, to mitigate human rights impacts when they scale down or stop operations.

The tourism industry is an economic backbone of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). But the sector has taken a hard fall from the lockdowns and international travel bans imposed by many countries as a measure to curb the ongoing pandemic.

With much international travel completely halted, many hotels are reported to be largely empty and prices are around half of what is normal for the season. Dubai’s hotels have seen occupancy rates fall by more than 50 percent during March compared to last year during what should be the peak season.

Until the country began slowly opening up this week, strict lockdowns and curfews meant only workers with special permits have been allowed out with authorities threatening stringent legal action against anyone violating the curfew.

“Like the other Gulf states, Dubai has imposed a full lockdown with violators risking hefty fines and deportations, Froilan Malit, Gulf migration specialist at Cambridge University and managing director of Rights Corridor told Swedwatch.

Workers stranded

Since Dubai’s economy is highly globalised and financially dependent on global tourism and trade, it has been hit hard by the pandemic. As much as 96 percent of Dubai’s employed population consists of migrant workers and the hotel sector is highly dependent on these workers, who are mostly from South Asian countries.

As Swedwatch has previously reported, working conditions in the hotel sector are often poor and workers put in long hours, often without overtime pay. These migrant workers are now deeply affected by the pandemic. When companies in the tourism sector terminate contracts, they often leave migrants without the means to support themselves. Since travel is suspended and many airports in their home countries closed, migrant workers have become stranded in Dubai.

Gulf states-based NGO Migrant-Rights has reported that 800 migrants employed by a supermarket chain have been stranded in Dubai, lacking food and deeply indebted due to having paid large recruitment fees.

According to Swedwatch research the most vulnerable workers in the hotel sector are those employed by staffing agencies. Another group that has been hit hard are undocumented migrant workers. Being reported to the authorities could mean being arrested and eventually deported. These workers may not seek medical help even if they are experiencing symptoms of Covid-19.

Migrant workers often live in tightly packed, often unsanitary, labour camps in conditions which are optimal for the spread of disease. According to Malit, the Gulf states are now enacting policies to reduce their migrant populations.

“Governments want to reduce the public health risks linked to heavily crowded migrant accommodation in labour camps,” he said, adding that most migrants will likely want to stay in the Gulf countries in the hope that the economy recovers, as many see the cost of returning home [with debts] as higher than staying.

Human Rights Impact Assessments

Companies have a responsibility to undertake robust and gender sensitive human rights due diligence (HRDD) throughout their supply chains, to identify and address actual and potential human rights impacts arising as a result of terminations due to the corona pandemic. HRDD should be conducted in line with the United National Guiding Principles (UNGPs) and OECD Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct.

Given the speed with which Covid-19 is impacting societies, businesses also need to urgently initiate Human Rights Impact Assessments (HRIA) which take into account the special conditions facing migrant workers at the moment.

If a HRIA reveals that a migrant worker, whose contract is terminated due to the corona pandemic, is unable to return to his or her home country, employers should consider paying a final settlement to the worker – to cover repatriation costs. If the worker and employer cannot agree on an amount, the employer could consult with either the host country labour ministry or embassy to settle an amicable amount.