Why we must respond differently to the next pandemic

  • March 3, 2023
Why we must respond differently to the next pandemic

Madeleine Ary Hahne on how Covid turned ex-pat workers in UAE into de facto slaves as wages were stopped

In normal conditions, wage theft still happens, but there may still be the option of leaving and starting anew. With COVID’s severe travel restrictions, those options disappeared.

Madeleine Ary Hahne

“Lani, are you guys still being paid?” I asked.

Lani’s omnipresent smile froze on her face. Her eyes flicked back and forth as though scanning the empty room for people listening in.

“Who told you?” she whispered.

“I’ve heard rumours,” I said, now whispering like her.

Her voice lowered still further, “No, we haven’t been paid, ma’am. Not for three months. But I can’t talk about it here. They have cameras, and I don’t know if they have microphones too.”

I nodded, unsure who “they” was, but infected now by the fear Lani clearly felt. I had stumbled into something more serious and complex than I’d imagined.

“They don’t have cameras on the 9th floor,” Lani continued, still whispering. I lived on the 9th floor. “They have cameras on every other floor, but not the ninth. I’ll come by.”

Whispered concerns

A few hours later, Lani visited. As we sat in my sundrenched apartment, she laid out the dark new reality of the building staff of our apartment complex in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates. This was 2020, and throughout the Gulf, COVID was being used as an excuse to stop paying employees. A friend of mine had whispered her concern to me that this was happening in our own building. Lani, the building receptionist, just confirmed it.

The seven employees in our building had few options. As is common practice in the Gulf, all their passports had been taken by the company for “safe keeping”. Lani felt certain she could get hers back if she simply went to ask, though I had heard enough from others to suggest this might not be the case. But even if she got it back, it wouldn’t make much difference. COVID had grounded virtually all flights from the country. She had no way to get back to her home in Manila or anywhere else. She also could not find another job easily. When Lani arrived in the UAE, she had spent four long months searching for work while her meagre savings dwindled.

“I was jobless and scared,” Lani explained to me when I recently interviewed her. “I came to the UAE because I needed work. I had to help my father. His condition is not well – he needs dialysis treatment we cannot afford. This work could keep him alive.”

If Lani did choose to leave her job but couldn’t leave the country due to lack of funds and grounded flights, she could face imprisonment for being in the country illegally. Shady detention centres litter the deep deserts around Abu Dhabi where people seen to have violated the terms of their immigration disappear for years at a time. Quitting was simply not an option, and neither was being fired. So she had to keep working for an employer who she wasn’t sure would ever pay her again.

Why were they not being paid

A major theme throughout our conversations in the following month was why — why did the company stop paying them? Lani and the other employees could not understand how the building management company could justify these actions — almost none of the tenants had moved out of the building since COVID started. These tenants, like me, were presumably still paying rent as usual. How the company had lost enough income to justify withholding pay was never explained.

Together, Lani and I worked to find a way out for her and the other six employees who Lani watched over like a mother hen. We thought we’d try the obvious path first — ask the government for help. Lani was scared to reach out to them for fear it would get back to her employers that she was complaining and that they’d fire her in retribution. So we agreed that I would do it. If I were to report anything, I promised to do so without mentioning her or anyone else who worked in the building directly, stating only that I knew they were not being paid.

Neither of us held out much hope. The UAE government is notoriously opaque and bureaucratic. You might submit paperwork, return a month later, and find a shrugging employee telling you to come again later. I worked on this issue for days, emailing people I knew who were involved in helping immigrant workers, searching online for resources, and trawling government sites for places to report. At one point, I found a website where I could submit a complaint. I did so, but never heard anything back. Lani told me they never had any indication it had made an impact with the company either.

Waiting and hoping

Meanwhile, I discreetly asked other American ex-pat friends for advice. What I heard from them was not encouraging. Workers had stopped being paid en masse throughout the country. In our church community, dozens of members suddenly had no income and were scrounging for food, often starving. One American man had tried the government route like me, but rather than just submit an anonymous report to an obscure website, he had gone into the ministry in person on behalf of some Nigerian friends who were afraid that if they went in, their employer would target them. The American was essentially told there is nothing the government can do.

Within a couple weeks of effort and brainstorming, we acknowledged the truth. All they could do was wait and hope.

Of course, they still needed food. With Lani’s advice on what to buy for each member of staff, my husband and I bought and secretly delivered food for the seven members of the building staff. Lani gave us lists of what specific types of rice to buy, emphasising that we needed to ensure we bought jasmine rice for the Filipino staff, and basmati rice for the Pakistani staff. Every two weeks, we filled our hatchback to the roof with these groceries, and we’d drive into the parking garage just like we did after our own personal shopping trips. There, one of the male staffers would rush out of a storage room in the parking garage with a rickety shopping cart to meet us. In the sauna-like heat and humidity of an Abu Dhabi summer day, we’d load the cart at speed and then he’d push the rusting, rattling thing back into the dark storage room and lock the door behind him. Fear pervaded most of these contacts, fear that the general manager might drive in, or that they’d installed a camera we didn’t know about. We rarely spoke until the deed was done.

De facto enslavement

I soon learned through a friend of mine at church that some of the staff were sharing their food with people they knew who had also stopped being paid so that, through their generosity, several people we never met were getting at least one meal a day too. But of course, this was only the smallest drop in a sea of silent starvation. Everywhere we went, smiling faces of customer service representatives and construction workers belied what became increasingly clear was a nation-wide period of de facto enslavement.

While the national news continued to blithely report about government meetings and COVID protocols, more anecdotal, half-whispered stories of the horrors of wage theft, starvation and eviction reached us. We were told about a Nigerian man who begged an Australian friend of ours to drive him to Dubai every week, through the onerous and unpredictable checkpoints at the borders of each Emirate, to pick up food from one of his still employed family members and then return to give it to starving people in his camp.

People whispered about lines forming in front of the Embassies of the Philippines, Nigeria, and Kenya then disappearing without explanation. The New York Times wrote a number of pieces on this issue, profiling the extreme and often horrifying circumstances of migrant workers in the Gulf during COVID: migrants who had lost their jobs during the pandemic and then were imprisoned in storerooms by the employment agencies who recruited them, domestic workers locked in the apartments of their employers for months at a time (we personally knew someone whose wife had not been able to leave her building for six months), and the unsanitary, overcrowded conditions at workers’ camps turning their halls into death traps.

But even a reporting titan like The New York Times had little impact on the ground in the UAE where the only people likely to read it were Western expats whose visas are also tied to their employment and who might risk imprisonment themselves if they spoke out. Brits, Americans and other Western expats are regularly imprisoned on trumped up or obscure charges, including for perceived defamation of the state. Even with Western papers calling for action, the UAE and other Gulf countries have little incentive to change their behaviour as they know their tight military and trade alliances with the Western countries will inevitably supersede concern over human rights violations.

Going home?

A few months into our covert grocery delivery practice, the building company gave the staff the equivalent of a few week’s wage. Lani and the other female worker immediately paid some of their rent and staved off imminent eviction. Then, when flights started again, but regular wages still hadn’t appeared, we offered to pay to fly all the staff back to their home countries. Six out of the seven staff said no. Life in their home country was less appealing than staying in the UAE, even if they weren’t being paid. For several of them, home meant war. One worker’s family had even fled conflict and were currently living in the bush. For her, there was no home to return to.

The one person who did take us up on our offer was Lani. Without money, it made no sense for her to stay in the UAE while her father’s dialysis was on hold for lack of funds. She wanted to be with him at home to help him live and, more recently, to die.

Almost two years have passed since Lani returned to Manila. Her father’s passing has left her bereft, afloat and jobless, and our continued conversations are laced with sorrow that no words of comfort can help stem.

All together, we secretly bought groceries for seven months. When wages started coming in again regularly the employees told us not to worry about buying them food anymore. Lani’s flight home coincided with the first release of wages, and we offered to cancel the ticket if she wanted to stay. But with a dying father at home, Lani felt she had to leave.

Lessons for the next pandemic

Lani and the other building employees are seven out of millions. While COVID certainly didn’t cause the structural inequalities that have placed so many in such precarious positions, it exacerbated them, literally entrapping millions throughout the world. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to know how many people were put in such impossible situations because data on their experience is either difficult to collect or intentionally obscured. In normal conditions, wage theft still happens (it is particularly common in the Gulf), but there may still be the option of leaving and starting anew. With COVID’s severe travel restrictions, those options disappeared.

That’s not to suggest that travel restrictions and other COVID protocols were not necessary in some form. As with any crisis, there are always trade-offs. But these restrictions had many unforeseen consequences, from imprisonments, to starvation, to mass infection. Again, accurate statistics on this are difficult to obtain as official numbers do not always match the first-hand accounts from these migrant workers.

It is our prerogative to recognise, and where possible, remedy, crisis responses which may disproportionately harm the poor and disenfranchised. We have seen how serious a pandemic can be and we know more are coming. The next time this happens, we need to be ready. If lockdowns are employed as they were before and international travel is restricted, the potential for abuse skyrockets.

The problem is, all the international mechanisms are arrayed against real change. Powerful countries in the West need Gulf alliances to maintain the regional status quo and therefore won’t exert intense pressures on Gulf countries to change. The home countries of the exploited workers are largely impoverished and have little power to make demands. Gulf countries rely on exploitative practices to maintain their economies. And even with the risk of exploitation, abuse and de facto slavery, migrant workers will continue to pour into the Gulf so long as they cannot find employment or security at home.

However, there is a little cause for hope. In the face of a pandemic unprecedented in the modern era, most countries looked to the example of other countries to know what to do. Lockdowns came in waves as we all watched each other respond and took action accordingly. In this way, the recommendations of health organisations like the WHO and the CDC had real, on the ground, influence everywhere. These organisations should now, therefore, take a hard look at their systems for designing policy recommendations.

While science, of course, needs to have the most prominent role, ethics must be given a place. It matters who is in the room when these policies are designed. Along with doctors and politicians, there should be philosophers, social scientists and ethicists. They can help think through how data-driven responses (like curfews and closed borders) may cause real, lasting damage to society’s most vulnerable groups, then attempt to mitigate these consequences. While there can be no perfect solutions, surely we can do better. And for the sake of Lani and others like her, we must try.

*Madeleine Ary Hahne [2020] is doing a PhD in Geography. Picture credit: Dubai, UAE by Nino Verde.


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