Human rights groups are urging governments in the Gulf to ease restrictions on free internet calls, in order to allow low-income foreign workers to affordably connect with their families during the coronavirus pandemic.

Workers from the Philippines, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh — many of whom are employed in the construction and retail industries — form the majority of the population in Gulf states such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Applications that use Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology, including WhatsApp and Skype, have long been restricted to varying degrees in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Oman. No such blocks exist in Bahrain or Kuwait.

In Qatar, which is home to 1.9 million migrant workers, residents told Coda Story how the restriction of such services affects their lives.

Mark*, a Filipino who works as an administrator in a labor camp on the outskirts of Doha, spoke to Coda Story by phone this week about the challenges of contacting his family in Manila. He has been in Doha for seven years, earns $950 a month and lives on the complex, along with 5,000 other migrant workers. He said he would rather send money home to his family than pay for expensive overseas voice calls. 

Mark said that it has been a month since he last made a video call to his family. “Now we are recording video and sending it in Facebook Messenger,” he explained. “It is very, very difficult to stay in touch. I am using voice calls or sending messages on Messenger. The consequence of blocking VoIP apps is you cannot see your family face to face. We communicate through sending text messages.” 

To date, the Philippines has reported 552 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 35 deaths. “I am worried about my family,” added Mark. “As of now, in the Philippines, there is also a lockdown [and] most cases of the coronavirus are in Manila.” 

The UAE’s two telecommunications firms, Etisalat and Du have recently enabled Microsoft Teams, Zoom and CloudTalk over both wireless and mobile data connections. However, voice and video features on popular applications such as WhatsApp and Skype remain blocked.

While a large number of the Gulf’s expatriates use virtual private networks (VPNs) to bypass VoIP restrictions, the monthly fees of around $10 charged by such services prove prohibitive for many low-income workers.

Khalid Ibrahim, executive director at the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, an NGO based in Beirut, also notes that the blocking of popular VoIP applications could place the Gulf’s migrant workers in an even more vulnerable position than that which they already occupy.

“They are hardworking, paid little and deprived of basic rights like setting up a union,” Ibrahim explained. “Not to have access to these applications is a violation of their basic rights. They [may also] go to other applications, which are not safe and face hackers.”

Other human rights experts believe that unrestricted internet calls play a crucial role in the exchange of information and that governments should not curtail freedoms during the global coronavirus outbreak.

In an email to Coda Story, Christen Dobson, senior project lead at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre in New York, said, “Technology and social media companies have a critical role to play in ensuring that our rights to access information, free expression, and privacy are respected and not restricted during this crisis.” 

* Mark declined to give his second name, in order to protect his job