“I don’t have much food left. Just some rice and lentils. It will last only a few days. What happens when this food finishes?” said Rafiq, a cleaner from Bangladesh who lost his job in March.
Qatar, home to over 2 million migrant workers, now has one of the highest rates of infection per capita in the world with almost 18,000 cases in a population of just 2.8 million. Over 25% of those tested for the virus in the past week have been found to be infected; the vast majority migrant workers.
The government says almost all the cases are mild, and death rates have remained very low, with just 12 fatalities.
The cost to livelihoods has been compounded by a government directive in mid-April allowing companies that have stopped operating due to coronavirus restrictions to put workers on unpaid leave or terminate their contracts. The government said food and accommodation, which is usually arranged by employers, must continue to be provided, but workers’ testimonies suggest in some cases this is not happening.
A Filipino beautician who arrived in Qatar two months ago said she received just half a month’s pay and has now been laid off. “My boss says he has no money. How about my family in the Philippines? They need my money … How will I get food? There is no one to give us. Even my boss is not giving [food],” she said.
Some of the worst hit are undocumented workers and those on so-called “free visas”, who often rely on short-term or casual work, without a regular employer to provide food and housing.
An aerial view of Doha’s Industrial Area, much of which has been in total lockdown since an outbreak of the virus in March. Photograph: via Pete Pattisson
Saidul, a decorator from Bangladesh working on a free visa, said he has been without a job since mid-March. “I have spent all my savings. I am borrowing money from friends and relatives for food and rent. It’s very difficult to carry on without work … I’m not afraid of corona. The problem is there isn’t any work,” he said.
Domestic workers are particularly vulnerable.
A group of “live out” domestic workers from Nepal, who work in private homes during the day but return to their own rooms at night, told the Guardian they have been left destitute after they refused to move in with the families they serve, fearing both the virus and the risk of abuse, which is common among domestic workers in the Gulf.
In response, the women said the company which directly employs them forced them to sign a paper stating it is no longer liable for their salaries. Since early March, they have each received just 100 rials (£22).
“We don’t have any money left now. We begged our supervisor for food and eventually he gave us some, but what will happen when its finished?” said one.
On Wednesday, the government announced easing of restrictions on the Industrial Area, a vast district of labour camps, factories and warehouses on the outskirts of Doha, much of which has been in total lockdown after an outbreak of the virus in March. The area is home to hundreds of thousands of men, housed in rundown, overcrowded dormitories. Police guard the entry roads which are shut off with heavy metal barriers.
The government has established a £656m loan scheme for companies so that workers in quarantine or government-imposed isolation can continue to be paid, but some workers in the Industrial Area told the Guardian they have been put on unpaid leave.
“The company said they won’t pay us for April but they would give us [some money] for food, but we haven’t even got that … They gave us a tray of eggs and some oil a few days ago. That was all,” said Feroz, a worker from India who has been trapped in the Industrial Area for almost two months. “We are facing so many problems here. It’s like we are in jail.”
Last month the government said, “1,000 trucks loaded with goods enter the Industrial Area daily”, with food, water and protective equipment for workers.
The plight of low-wage workers in Qatar is repeated across the Gulf, where economies are almost entirely dependent on millions of migrant workers from south and southeast Asia and east Africa. Kuwait has reportedly seen a surge in the number of suicides among migrants. Workers in the UAE have described being “trapped” without work or a way to return home, while Saudi Arabia has deported thousands of Ethiopian domestic workers.
A coalition of human rights organisations wrote to governments in the Gulf in April, warning that low-paid migrant workers remain “acutely vulnerable” to infection. They urged governments to take steps to reduce the economic impact of the outbreak.
The Qatar government said it provides free testing and medical treatment for all, and has “implemented wide-ranging restrictions” and “strict guidelines” to contain the virus, including a large-scale communications campaign to raise awareness of the containment and prevention measures, and an “aggressive testing and tracing programme”.
Names have been changed to protect identities.