COVID-19 Pandemic:
Wage protection of migrant workers in the Arab States
ILO Migration Advisory Group (Arab States)
Discussion Note for Policymakers *

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, migrant workers faced critical wage-related issues globally, and
especially in the Arab States, yet the scale of the problem has vastly increased as the pandemic led to job
losses, salary reductions and unplanned repatriations.
This Discussion Note for Policymakers outlines how ILO standards, including the Protection of Wages
Convention, 1949 (No. 95), can support countries in the region to “build back better” – not only through more
robust systems of wage protection, but also through non-discriminatory wage-setting with regard to workers
of different nationalities as international recruitment resumes. Governments in the Arab States can support
fair remuneration and regular payment of wages by urgently strengthening access to justice mechanisms
and promoting equal treatment in respect of remuneration including equal remuneration for work of equal
value, particularly for migrant domestic workers.

1. What do we know about the impact of COVID-19 on wage protection of migrant workers in
the Arab States?
COVID-19 has had an enormous impact on workers
generally, but the effect has been especially felt by
migrant workers, including the approximately 41.4
million migrants (and refugees) in the Arab States at
the start of the pandemic. 1
Although systematic data is not yet available, it is
undisputed that many migrant workers have lost their
jobs and left the countries where they were working,
sometimes with wages and/or end-of-service benefits
delayed or still owing. 2 Others remained employed
but had their salaries reduced, whether in accordance
with national legislation 3 or not.

*

This document was developed as an outcome of
discussions of the Migration Advisory Group (Arab
States) in February 2021. The MAG serves as a think
tank and advisory forum to ILO’s Regional Office for
Arab States to provide advice on the ILO strategy to
advocate for policy change under the Fair Migration
Agenda in the region. The information and opinions
contained herein do not constitute an endorsement
by the International Labour Office or its constituents.
The MAG is supported by the Swiss Agency for
Development and Cooperation (SDC).

Numerous civil society organizations have voiced the
concern that COVID-19 has led to a major increase in
non-payment of wages, with some employers taking
advantage of the pandemic to unlawfully dismiss their
migrant workforce and to withhold the wages and
benefits that were owed to them. 4 In other cases,
employers were alleged to have placed migrant workers
on drastically reduced salaries, forced them into
unpaid leave without their consent, 5 made unlawful
deductions from the salary of the worker (including for
accommodation or personal protective equipment) or
refused to pay for the return ticket of the worker upon
termination of their employment. 6
All countries in the region have administrative systems
for handling complaints related to labour issues (usually
in the form of mediation) and have access to judicial
remedy through labour or civil courts. Yet, even prior
to the pandemic, redress for disputes arising out of
problems with wage payments had been a challenge for
migrant workers in the region due to language barriers,
the time required to file a grievance and the vulnerability
of workers in an irregular situation. This has been
exacerbated by the fact that COVID-19 has pushed many
workers to leave their destination countries before being
able to file a claim – in order to take advantage of amnesty
programmes, or because workers would not be able to

1 United Nations Department of Economic Affairs, Population Division, “International Migrant Stock 2020”, 2020.
2 ILO, “COVID-19: Labour Market Impact and Policy Response in the Arab States”, ILO Briefing Note with FAQs, 2020.
3 Legislation in the United Arab Emirates and in Jordan during COVID-19 permitted employers to temporarily (or in the case of the United Arab Emirates,
permanently) reduce wages in specific circumstances, provided there is agreement between the worker and the employer. See also Fahad L. Al-Ghalib Alsharif,
and Froilan T. Malit, “Migration and The COVID-19 Pandemic in the Gulf: A Study of Foreign Expatriate Worker Communities' Coping Attitudes, Practices, and
Future Prospects in Dubai and Jeddah”, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Regional Programme Gulf States Policy Report No. 15, 2020, which notes a culture of “wage
cuts” among migrant workers, particularly in the context of hospitality, education and other service-related industries, that ranged between 25 and 50 per cent,
largely to take account of employers’ economic losses.
4 For example, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), noted an increase of 275 per cent in the
number of allegations of labour abuse in the GCC between April and August 2020 compared to the same period from
the previous year. Non-payment of wages was cited in 81 per cent of reported BHRRC cases. See: BHRRC, ”COVID-19:
Spike in Allegations of Labour Abuse against Migrant Workers in the Gulf” (September 2020).
5 For example, see Equidem, The Cost of Contagion (2020).
6 For example, see Migrant Forum in Asia, Crying Out for Justice: Wage Theft Against Migrant Workers
during COVID-19 (2021).

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