MENA: Workers’ rights on the line during COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our world. Every day brings more heartbreaking news of thousands of deaths from around the world. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), more than 170,000 people have been infected and the death toll stands at more than 7,500 according to World Health Organisation figures – although ongoing conflict in countries such as Syria, Yemen, and Libya make gathering accurate data difficult.

This new strain of coronavirus has also brought much of the world to an economic standstill: airports have been shut down, trade halted, businesses closed, and most of us asked to practice social distancing for our own safety. This is helping to ‘flatten the curve’, reduce pressure on hospitals and health workers, and give scientists time to develop a vaccine for the virus.

May 1 marks International Workers’ Day, a cause for both celebration and protest across most of MENA, which has seen waves of social movements calling for economic and social justice over the past decade. The spread of coronavirus has brought us to a significant crossroads in the long battle for the protection of labour rights.

The virus has exposed vulnerabilities in how our society is structured – that we cannot survive without the labour of those working historically precarious, underpaid, and undervalued jobs. They are undoubtedly at the frontline of this battle. Their rights to health, dignity, and just conditions of work must be protected.

Here are four ways we believe MENA states need to protect and ensure labour rights without delay:

1. Ensure equal access to health care for all

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of the right to health which includes quality health care for everyone – regardless of nationality, employment, or socioeconomic status. MENA governments must move forward to ensure that all people have access to social security, including paid sick leave. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar are home to the majority of the estimated 23 million migrant workers in MENA living under conditions that can be described as modern-day slavery. The spread of COVID-19 threatens to put these workers at even greater risk and is highlighting the unsanitary, overcrowded conditions migrant workers often live in. Learn more here.

COVID-19 makes Gulf countries’ abuse of migrant workers impossible to ignore

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2. Guarantee workplace safety

Around the world, thousands of health workers responding to the coronavirus outbreak have been infected, and hundreds have died because of lack of access to personal protective equipment. Those working in ‘essential’ jobs in retail are taking daily risks to ensure shops are stocked, sometimes with little room for choice. In Egypt, for example, thousands of private-sector garment workers in the cities of Port Said and Ismailia are at risk of losing their jobs, having their incomes slashed, or being made to work without protective gear amid fears of the spread of COVID-19. Businesses and governments should not force workers to choose between safety and livelihood. Amnesty International has called for the protection of human rights – which include workers’ rights – to be placed at the heart of all governments’ response to the crisis.

Egypt: Private-sector garment workers forced to choose between health and livelihoods

3. Eliminate gender discrimination

COVID-19 has underlined systemic gender discrimination and its inevitable economic impact. Women workers have long suffered financially because of the pay gap and labour restrictions in the MENA region, and have taken up much of the burden of care work in hospitals, homes, and communities. Women make up 70% of the healthcare workforce globally, yet occupy only 25% of senior roles. In Lebanon, women migrant domestic workers have faced discrimination in access to health care services and women’s organizations have reported increases of up to 180% in the number of calls to their hotlines to report gender-based violence at home during lockdown.

Medical staff in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates on April 14, 2020. Photo by KARIM SAHIB / AFP.
Medical staff in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates on April 14, 2020. Photo by KARIM SAHIB / AFP.

4. Secure livelihoods

The economic impact of COVID-19 has placed a severe strain on people’s ability to afford food, rent, and other essential services. Workers must not be left to bear the brunt of this crisis alone. Governments have a responsibility to ensure their economic stimulus plans protect the most vulnerable from poverty. State packages must include workers in the informal economy, so that lack of formal employment does not mean that they are left out of government aid initiatives. Lockdown policies have denied many of these workers the chance to earn their livelihoods. There is a need for specific measures aimed at people working in the informal sector in line with the right to social security, so that they can realize their right to an adequate standard of living.

Amnesty International has called for the protection of human rights – which include workers’ rights – to be placed at the heart of all governments’ response to the crisis.

Amnesty International

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