Stranded Between the UAE and Pakistan – Migrant Construction Workers Walk a Tightrope Amid COVID-19


PAUL LYONS (Northeastern University) 

July 2020

Presentation Slides - UAE
UAE-Pakistan Team Slides from Virtual Presentation on July 29, 2020

As the global pandemic swept across the Persian Gulf, low-wage migrant workers from Pakistan employed at various construction sites in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were left stranded. International flights came to a halt, and workers who had either completed their contracts, were dismissed from their jobs, forced to take leave, or experienced lapses in their immigration statuses were forced to remain in lockdown. The construction industry in Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) countries employs an estimated 10 million workers, most of them migrant workers from South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Government statistics report that prior to the pandemic, 1.5 million Pakistanis were employed in the UAE alone. Construction work is one of the main sources of work for migrants in the Gulf, and thus a lifeline for millions of dependent family members who rely on wages earned by these migrant workers.

As the crisis of jobless and locked down workers grew, the UAE government ordered migrant sending countries to take back their nationals. Facing mounting pressure from media and human rights groups documenting the alarming conditions faced by migrant workers in labor camps, the Pakistani government acquiesced. Thus began a panicked rush towards repatriation as over 60,000 Pakistanis registered with the Pakistani consulate demanding to return home, many having to draw on their own funds to purchase their return ticket. The Pakistani government especially arranged repatriation flights to carry fleeing Pakistani expatriates back home. However, reports emerged that between 50-80 percent of workers alighting these packed flights tested positive for COVID-19. The Pakistani-UAE migration corridor thus became a COVID-19 “hotspot.”




On this page:
Key Insights and Further Research
Annotated Bibliography


Key Insights and Further Research

Migrant Labor as Development Strategy

Dependence on wages earned in the UAE and the remittances they generate makes it incumbent on Pakistani migrants to keep coming back to construction sector jobs even in the absence of proper legal protections, decent working conditions, and in the face of the dangerous conditions created by the pandemic.

Lack of Government Accountability among either the UAE government or the Pakistani government demonstrates how much of this migration corridor is being driven by private sector actors that may or may not adhere to international regulatory standards.


South-South Global Inequalities

Oil rich countries depend on cheap labor from Asian countries in order to keep their economies running, and rely on superior bargaining power in this political relationship to keep wages low, and workers permanently in precarious labor arrangements.


Regular and Irregular Migration

More research is needed to make clear the complex relationship between the multiple regular and irregular migration options available to workers in the construction industry. 


Racial Regimes

How do histories of racialization, including a long history of commodified labor in the form of the slave trade, and other variations of free and unfree labor between the Middle East and South Asia, shape the current conditions of workers in the GCC?



Annotated Bibliography 

Construction/Labor in Pakistan
Human Rights Abuses in UAE Construction
Legal Regime – Gulf-South Asia Migration Corridor
Migrant Workers During COVID-19


Construction/Labor in Pakistan

Ahmed, Ishfaq, Mohammad Shaukat, Ahmad Usman, Muhammad Nawaz, and Sajid Nazir. “Occupational health and safety issues in the informal economic segment of Pakistan: A survey of construction sites.” International Journal of Occupational Safety and Ergonomics 24, no. 2 (2018): 240–50.

Government of Pakistan. Labour Force Survey 2017-2018. Islamabad: Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, 2018.

Lefebvre, Alain. Kinship, Honour and Money in Rural Pakistan: Subsistence Economy and the Effects of International Migration. London: Routledge, 1999.


Human Rights Abuses in UAE Construction

Human Rights Watch. Building Towers, Cheating Workers. November 11, 2006.

Khan, Themrise. “Labour migration governance in Pakistan: Protecting Pakistan’s overseas labour migrants.” South Asia @ LSE Blog, June 3, 2020.

Barnett, Adam. “One year to Expo 2020, UAE’s construction industry must do more to tackle abuse of migrant workers.” Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, October 21, 2019. 

Toppa, Sabrina. “Pakistani Migrants: A Tightrope Between Opportunity and Disappointment.” MigrantRights.Org, March 20, 2018.

Saraswathi, Vani. “Structured to Perfection: Racism in the Gulf.” MigrantRights.Org, April 11, 2020.


Legal Regime – Gulf-South Asia Migration Corridor

Motaparthy, Priyanka. “Understanding Kafala: An archaic law at cross purposes with modern development.”, March 11, 2015.

“UAE’s resolution to stabilise private sector employment gives businesses a free hand on contract change.”, April 2, 2020.

International Labour Organization. “Occupational Safety and Health Country Profile: United Arab Emirates.” Last Accessed September 22, 2020. 

International Labor Organization. “Building Responsibly – Labour Law Factsheet: United Arab Emirates. August 2019. 

International Labor Organization. “Review of law, policy and practice of recruitment of migrant workers in Pakistan.” March 11, 2020.

“Changes to UAE Labor Law.”, March 13, 2016.

International Labour Organization.Labour migration, skills development and the future of work in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.” July 20, 2018. 

International Labour Organization. “From Pakistan to the Gulf region: An analysis of links between labour markets, skills and the migration cycle.” September 30, 2016.

International Labour Organization. “The cost of migration: What low-skilled migrant workers from Pakistan pay to work in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.” August 23, 2016. 

Irudaya Rajan and Ginu Zacharia Ooommen, Asianization in Migrant Workers in the Gulf Countries, Singapore: Springer, 2020.


Migrant Workers During COVID-19

Cornwell, Alexander. “Gulf’s migrant workers left stranded and struggling by coronavirus outbreak.” Reuters, April 14, 2020.

“Half of migrant workers returning from the UAE have Covid-19, says Pakistan.” Middle East Monitor, May 6, 2020. 

Migration Data Portal.Migration data relevant for the COVID-19 pandemic.” Immigration and emigration statistics, last updated September 18, 2020.

Bukhari, Zulfi. “Over 21,000 Pakistani expats from Gulf region laid off amid COVID-19.” Arab News PK, April 25, 2020.

“Pakistan Begins Repatriating Laborers Stranded In U.A.E.” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, May 28, 2020.

Greenfield, Charlotte. “Pakistan concerned at workers returning from UAE with coronavirus.” Reuters, May 5, 2020. 

Human Rights Watch. “Pakistan: Workers Face Health, Economic Risks.” April 1, 2020.

Perera, Sampath. “Pakistan “reopening” much of its economy as COVID-19 cases and deaths spike.” World Socialist Website, May 28, 2020.

Toppa, Sabrina. “Fast fashion: Pakistan garment workers fight for rights amid Covid-19 crisis.” Guardian, May 27, 2020.

Motaparthy, Priyanka. “UAE’s revised visa extension rules place migrants in precarity.”, March 11, 2020. 

“UAE not “making it happen” for its migrants.”, April 28, 2020. 

Greenfield, Charlotte and Alexander Cornwell. “Pakistan concerned at workers returning from UAE with coronavirus.” Reuters, May 5, 2020.

“Pakistan starts repatriating UAE-based nationals stranded by coronavirus.” Straits Times, April 19, 2020.

International Labour Organization. “The cost of migration: What low-skilled migrant workers from Pakistan pay to work in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.” August 23, 2016. 

Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. “Labor Supply Chains in the Arab Gulf, Building Back Free-er.” GLC Webinar Archive, June 26, 2020.