Migrant hotel workers in UAE face uncertain future amid pandemic

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COVID-19Debt Bondage

The coronavirus pandemic’s devastating impact on the hospitality industry has left many migrant hotel workers in the United Arab Emirates fearing for their future and at increased risk of falling into debt bondage.

The UAE’s current lockdown has resulted in the closure of most hotels, leaving many members of its large migrant workforce—for whom labor abuses are already widespread—jobless, stranded, and in debt.

While some workers have been allowed to return home on repatriation flights, others have been unable to do so as a result of travel restrictions in their home countries.

Many of these stranded workers were charged high fees by the recruiters and brokers that took them to the UAE, and although hotel chains including Accor are still providing migrant workers with food and accommodation, the loss of income has meant workers are now unable to repay these debts.

The resulting risk of debt bondage is high not only for the workers themselves but for their families at home, whose livelihoods often rely on remittances.

On top of the increased exploitation risk they face, migrant workers in the UAE are among the most vulnerable people to infection, with social distancing impossible in their crowded living conditions.

The Guardian reports:

Each night, Bipul* is kept awake by the fear of loan sharks hounding his parents for the money he owes. Five months ago, the 25-year-old Sri Lankan borrowed $1,400 (£1,120) to pay recruiters to take him to the United Arab Emirates, where he got a job as cleaner at a five-star hotel. But since the coronavirus outbreak there are no longer any guests, so he no longer has work and the loan is going unpaid.

“I really need a job so I can repay it,” he says. “I also need to earn money to help my family. This is such a big problem.”

Bipul was earning AED 1,000 (£218) per month, working up to 11 hours a day, six days a week at the Pullman Hotel in Sharjah, which is managed by Accor, a French firm that owns several upscale international hotel chains.

Bipul’s final salary instalment and passport are being held by the company until flight restrictions are lifted and he can be put on a plane home, he says. Sending most of his earnings to Sri Lanka and living paycheque to paycheque, he is now stranded and penniless.

Workers in the hotel sector face a high risk of modern slavery due to its complex supply chains and high degree of franchising, which creates a dangerous separation between business owners and the operators responsible for working conditions.

Freedom United is currently calling on hotels to publish legally compliant modern slavery statements, a crucial first step for hotel companies to show how workers in their business and supply chains are protected from exploitation.

During the pandemic, vulnerable hotel workers need your support more than ever. Join us in calling on hotels to be transparent and report on how they protect their workers from exploitation. Send them a message today.

Chip in and help end modern slavery once and for all.

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