South Asian migrants seek justice as wage theft worsens in pandemic
BY ANURADHA NAGARAJ, NAIMUL KARIM AND BAN BARKAWI , THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION
Nizar Kochery has been fighting for migrant workers’ rights in the courts for decades, but he has never felt so overwhelmed.
As the coronavirus pandemic forced tens of thousands of South Asian migrants to leave the Gulf countries where they worked, the Doha-based lawyer was flooded with calls about unpaid wages and job losses.
“Nonpayment of wages or benefits has always plagued migrant workers in Gulf countries,” said Kochery, who specializes in labor law and advises many embassies in Qatar.
“But during COVID, the impact is being felt 100 times more. People left in fear, in a hurry, and most did not have time to collect pending wages or benefits as they boarded special flights to return home. Now they are counting their losses.”
South Asians have for years traveled to wealthier Gulf countries for employment, mostly as domestic workers or in the construction and hospitality sectors.
One migrant worker often supports many relatives and can earn far more than they would make in the same job at home.
But their migrant status makes it much harder for them to seek justice when things go wrong — as they have for large numbers in recent months as the pandemic has closed borders and devastated economies.
Even before the pandemic, unions and lawyers like Kochery say, the system for dealing with such cases was lacking.
Now, they say, there is a desperate need for an overhaul to cope with the challenges that come with the large-scale return of migrants.
The number of wage theft cases reported from Gulf countries rose more than three-fold between April and July compared with the same period last year, says the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, which advocates for human rights in business.
Bhoomaiah Motapalkula, 38, who worked as an office messenger, had not been paid his full salary since April 2019 when he had to return to India.
Now home, he is talking to lawyers about getting the 25,000 United Arab Emirates dirhams ($6,800) he says his employer in Dubai owes him.
“I trusted my employer each time he reassured me about my wages and handed me a little money to meet my needs,” he said. “I came home with nothing.”
In Bangladesh, returning migrants have on an average lost about 175,000 taka ($2,000), according to a study by the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit.
The charity, which based its figures on interviews with about 50 migrants, found most of the losses were unpaid wages.
Many workers have also lost out on the end-of-service benefits that they typically receive in the Gulf, said Ryszard Cholewinski, senior migration specialist for Arab states with the International Labour Organization (ILO).
“Workers that have been affected by the crisis and have lost their employment are leaving without payment of those contractual end of year benefits,” he said.
“If you’ve been working in the Gulf for say 15 years, that’s a substantial sum.”
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