'I'm trapped': the UAE migrant workers left stranded by Covid-19 job losses

By Katie McQue

Each night, Bipul* is kept awake by the fear of loan sharks hounding his parents for the money he owes. Five months ago, the 25-year-old Sri Lankan borrowed $1,400 (£1,120) to pay recruiters to take him to the United Arab Emirates, where he got a job as cleaner at a five-star hotel. But since the coronavirus outbreak there are no longer any guests, so he no longer has work and the loan is going unpaid.

“I really need a job so I can repay it,” he says. “I also need to earn money to help my family. This is such a big problem.”

Bipul was earning AED 1,000 (£218) per month, working up to 11 hours a day, six days a week at the Pullman Hotel in Sharjah, which is managed by Accor, a French firm that owns several upscale international hotel chains.

Bipul’s final salary instalment and passport are being held by the company until flight restrictions are lifted and he can be put on a plane home, he says. Sending most of his earnings to Sri Lanka and living paycheque to paycheque, he is now stranded and penniless.

Dulhara*, a Nepali in his 20s, is struggling to pay $2,500 of debts he incurred with Nepalese recruitment brokers who brought him to the UAE last year. Until he was placed at a job with Accor, the brokers made him live in a room with more than 20 other men, where he slept on a mattress on the floor and was given insufficient food. After that ordeal, he was desperate for life to improve.

“I’m trapped,” he says. “I feel so sad and angry. But what can I do?”

The UAE is on lockdown and most hotels are shut, leaving very low paid migrant workers – mainly employed in the tourism, hospitality and construction sectors – stranded in the country with no prospect of earning. The Emirati government has allowed some repatriation flights for Asian migrant workers left jobless by the pandemic. However, some countries have refused to allow their citizens home, citing concerns over possible disease transmission, leaving workers struggling to survive without funds.

“These are worrying reports. Given the already vulnerable position of migrant workers in the UAE, abrupt redundancies are likely to have a devastating effect,” says May Romanos, Amnesty International’s Gulf migrant rights’ researcher.

In accordance with UAE law, Accor is still providing its blue-collar migrant workers with food and accommodation. But in addition to their worry over debt, both Bipul and Dulhara say they are increasingly frightened their families back home will find paying for food difficult now they can’t send money.

“No redundancies have been made at Pullman Sharjah and Marjan Island Resort & Spa as a result of the possible impact that Covid-19 is having on business levels,” said Accor in a statement. The company did not respond to questions about salary levels and working conditions.

Instances of coronavirus in the UAE are higher among migrant workers owing to their often cramped and communal living conditions. The men interviewed said they are concerned they could become infected as social distancing is impossible.

The hospitality workers are living in a high-rise tower near the luxury hotel they were working at. Several floors have been converted into makeshift dormitories, with up to six workers packed into each small bedroom.

In Dulhara’s room a series of single metal beds are positioned side by side. It is dark, the walls are bare, and the only other furniture is row of school-style lockers for the workers’ belongings. Without money for cleaning products, they struggle to keep their living quarters sanitised.

Bored, the men mainly stay in their rooms and play games on their phones to pass the time.

“I came here to fulfil my hopes,” says Bipul. “But now everything is finished.”