"They asked me to stop coming before the official quarantine began - one house asked me to stop coming since mid-March and the other a week after that," he says. Both households have told him that he can visit to collect his pay once the ongoing circumstances return to normal.

Demand for domestic services at an all-time low

"People who could never imagine living without help have been doing so now because they know we live in very cramped places and are always around people so are probably more likely to get sick," he says. "Maybe it is true, I don’t know how this disease spreads but it doesn’t matter now because the whole city has been asked to self isolate."

Faraz’s situation is not unique - the demand for domestic workers, all across the region, have steadily declined since the first cases started emerging.

We reached out to two UAE-based cleaning companies and one based in Qatar. All reaffirmed that despite the impact of the lockdown on their business, their staff are still being paid full wages and on time. Workers, however, have a different story to tell.

Sneha, who works for a cleaning service in Sharjah, states that she has yet to be paid for March.

She has reached out to a few of the households she’d work at regularly and asked for financial aid because of the uncertainty she’s facing at work.

"The company says it is planning to pay us but we still haven’t received payment for March, and April is almost over. I worked regularly for a few Pakistani and Indian families and they gave me some money which is what I am surviving on right now," she says. "We still have work though but it is lesser hours a week because hardly anyone is calling for cleaning services."

Many migrant workers, particularly those who have already lost their jobs or those who are being asked to work without pay, are also seeking to return to their countries of origin but cannot do so because of the ban on flights.

Mass repatriations

The Pakistani consulate in the UAE stated to the media that it is able to provide rations of food to those in need but flights back home have been put on hold right now. Flights to India have also been on hold since mid to late March and are expected to resume soon but no specific dates have been confirmed. Nepal has also placed a ban on most citizens returning home leaving thousands of Nepalese workers in the Gulf stranded and, often, without a roof over their heads.

The Gulf states, however, are rushing to return expat workers who no longer have jobs back home and are putting pressure on South Asian countries to allow repatriation flights back.

Some of the measures can work in favour of the stranded migrants. Kuwait is running repatriation flights, free of charge, in coordination with countries of origin and Bahrain is also allowing repatriating flights but migrants will have to pay for the tickets. Only migrants who do not have any pending debts can avail the flights.

But in other cases, however, the lack of cooperation between host countries in the Gulf and the countries of origin is leaving migrants even more vulnerable. Amnesty International reports that Qatar informed ‘hundreds of migrant workers’ that they were going for their COVID-19 tests but, instead, put them in a detention centre and then, eventually, started to send them back to their countries of origin.

"We’re already seeing states scramble to return migrant workers en masse to their countries in an attempt to wash their hands of the responsibility for them, with the UAE for example threatening to review labour ties with countries of origin that are refusing to take back their citizens, as if those workers were not the ones who carried the Gulf states’ economies on their shoulders," says Zayadi.

Rabiya Jaffery

© OpenDemocracy 2020

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