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). 1

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