DAILY DISASTERS: Baghdad’s day workers labour for a daily fee. But thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, nobody wants to hire them.

The Baghdad man, who wished to be known only as Abu Ahmed, sits on the edge of the pavement. He is dressed shabbily but he is alert: His head turns from side to side, following the cars that come and go. He wishes one would stop right here, by him and his colleagues.

By Ayoub al-Hassan in Baghdad

He is surrounded by what are known in Iraq as day workers – for several hundred dinars, the men will go and labour for a day. They clean, they work on construction sites, they dig gardens and wells. And every day they meet here on this same street corner, where locals know they can hire a worker for a small fee.

“Do you need a day worker?,” Abu Ahmed, 40, asks shoppers passing by. “Even if it’s just for IQD5,000 (around US$4).”

The pedestrians pity him but nobody has any work for him. Abu Ahmed doesn’t mind the pity. He just needs somebody to hire him so he can return home to his family with a small amount of money before sunset.

The lockdown imposed by the Iraqi government to try and prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, makes life very difficult for day workers like Abu Ahmed. It was imposed almost a month ago now and has been far tougher than previous curfews in the country, which have been put into effect previously, because of religion, or terrorism or to secure elections.

“We haven’t worked in several days and most people here don’t have more than IQD2,000 in their pockets,” Abu Ahmed complains. “But everyone knows we depend on our daily income. Either we work or we return home without food for our families.”

The kind of street corner, on which these day workers stand and where locals know to find them, is common to many Iraqi cities. And most of them are in the same situation as these Baghdad labourers.

“I really hope people give us a little bit of money before we return home,” adds another man, known as Abu Ali. At 57, he is one of the oldest day workers on this corner. “But nobody comes to hire us and the security forces won’t even let us stand here for an hour. They are continuously coming to disperse us.”

Then, just a few meters away, a car stops. One of the men inside calls out that he needs two workers. Almost immediately the car is surrounded by a large crowd of men, all begging the occupants to choose them. Alarmed, the drivers race off.

A number of the day workers run behind the car as it accelerates away. Eventually too tired to run further, they return, panting, to the corner.

“Thanks be to God, today we ran a marathon behind a car and we got some exercise,” jokes one of them, Saad, a young man who recently married. “That’s better than lying on the ground, sick with the coronavirus.”

The day is ending and the day workers begin to give up and straggle home. Some of them came on foot from the outskirts of Baghdad, others live nearby. Those who live closer wait until the very last moment, before the curfew, in the hopes they might get a job so they can buy dinner for their families.

Eventually Abu Ahmed also gives up. “This is our corner. It is our beginning and also our end,” he says poetically before he goes. “Coronavirus, or no coronavirus, it doesn’t really matter for us. We cannot go on if we do not find some work.”

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