‘We don’t want to die in this desert’: Nepali migrant workers stranded in UAE as lockdown extends into second month

Following allegations made by Nepalese workers employed by the Oil Company Altrad Services in Abu Dhabi, London-based think tank ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies has contacted the company demanding a status report. The migrant workers are stranded in the UAE during the COVID-19 pandemic without adequate funds or aid from their employer.

Nepal’s borders have been closed to travel, even by its citizens, since 24 March. This has caused major problems for Nepali migrants who had been working in the UAE, who have been abandoned by both their home and host governments. The Nepalese Supreme Court had ordered the government to repatriate citizens working abroad, but no action has yet been taken.

Meanwhile, the 224,905 Nepalese living in the UAE are being neglected by both governments, living in unsanitary conditions and often with no income, since many of the migrants employed by Altrad Services have been laid off.

With no aid and no guidance, these Nepalese workers have been pushed to the edge and began protesting their employer’s lack of assistance, including nonpayment of wages over the last two months and unpaid sick leave. The workers have very little money left to tide them over. Other workers claim that their signatures were affixed to resignation letters without their consent.

Nearly 500 workers are participating in the protest and have been restricted to their crowded apartments.

One Nepali worker in the UAE told the Kathmandu Post that, “We just don’t want to die in the desert.” They are afraid of being stranded in a foreign country and have pleaded with their governments to lift the international flight bans during a window of time to allow them to return. The workers also stated that they are willing to abide by UAE lockdown rules if they are provided the necessary economic aid, along with adequate living conditions.

I have been working at Cleanco for three years. I get a monthly salary of 750 Dirham (204 USD), but it's been 70/75 days that I haven't get my salary and I'm afraid to lose my job

- A worker interviewed by ImpACT

Another Nepalese worker, interviewed by ImpACT but who wishes to remain anonymous, described his situation as “extremely dire.” He has worked for three years for a company that does business under the name of Cleanco Trading, Importing and Services, located in Abu Dhabi. He worked as a cleaner for the company until he was no longer assigned any work. It has been 75 days without pay so far, other than food and accommodations. During the past three years, he had been paid a minimal 750 dirhams a month.

There are hundreds of workers like this man, with nowhere to turn for help or a way to return home. Likewise, the company does not provide workers any personal hygiene products, such as sanitizers and face masks. They also do not have adequate money or the technology required to regularly call their families in Nepal, due to poor WIFI access and necessary credit top-ups.

 

Visa renewals

Since Nepali nationals are not able to return to their home countries, at the same time that many have been laid off from their jobs, they must renew their visas—but cannot pay for them. Visa renewals for workers and their families may amount to more than their previous monthly pay.

   

Seeking refuge on the streets

While some workers still have employer-provided accommodations, others are forced to live on the streets.

One worker told the Kathmandu Post that he and his fellow Nepalis “slept under the open sky and survived on water for many nights.”

With no job, money, or assistance, thousands of Nepali workers in the UAE await anxiously as their governments stumble to come up with a repatriation plan to return them home. It has yet to develop an evacuation plan for those in the UAE and other Gulf countries, let alone prepare adequate quarantine facilities and testing centres for their arrival.

In Nepal, around 50 percent of households have at least one member working abroad, mainly in countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar. Thus, if it is to open its borders, it must be able to facilitate a large number of incoming nationals who will fly back home the first chance they get.

Understandably, many of these workers feel insecure, anxious and scared. With no proper plan to evacuate them from the UAE, they remain stranded for days and months. The governments and companies such as Altrad Services and Cleanco must make it their responsibility to provide these workers with the assistance they need to keep them and their families safe and healthy.

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