Migrant workers and the pandemic

17 August 2020

All governments should consistently and systematically include migrant workers in their Covid-19 responses

Camille Rae Lim

The COVID-19 crisis has unveiled the harsh conditions under which migrant workers live and the challenges faced by governments to protect them. Disproportionately affected by the pandemic, many migrant workers exist in a limbo that excludes them from necessary aid whether from their host countries or home governments, and many are exposed to an inordinate amount of risk to their health and safety. Migrant workers must be included in all national strategies to recover from the pandemic.

Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable because they are often concentrated in the sectors of the economy with high levels of informal or unprotected work, characterised by low wages and the lack of social protection. They are often not only the most overlooked population during any global crisis but they are also viewed as a potential cause of infections. Meanwhile, millions of migrant workers lost their jobs in their countries of work and have been forced to return home to countries that are already struggling with rising unemployment and floundering economies.

According to the ILO, migrant workers are often those who serve on the front lines as they carry out essential jobs in healthcare, transport, services, construction, and agriculture and food processing. The ILO further estimates that 11 million migrant women are in domestic work, particularly in home-care settings.

These front line workers have often had to face greater risks to their health and safety as the pandemic progressed. Workers sometimes have to travel to work in crowded conditions where physical distancing is often difficult. Some have reported that they were not provided with the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), and others would have to touch surfaces such as thumb print scanners that could lead to the spread of the virus.

Economic impact

The World Bank’s latest Migration and Development Brief, COVID-19 Through a Migration Lens,” predicts that the overall remittance flows to low and middle-income countries will experience “the sharpest decline in recent history,”dropping around 20 percent, from USD 554 billion in 2019 to USD 445 billion this year. The effect of the pandemic on the wages and employment of migrants in host countries has made the greatest impact on this change and the effects on various regions will be “prolonged and arduous.” The brief adds that the decline in remittances will be felt most sharply by Europe and Central Asia, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

The significant decrease in the economic contribution of migrant workers due to the crisis will have far-reaching and long-term effects on their families, communities, service providers and many countries whose economies are kept afloat by remittances.

The Philippine Context

The Philippines is one of the top sources of migrant workers in the world and is currently dealing with the displacement, repatriation, and stranding of thousands of its workers and the drastic drop in remittance flows that form a significant part of the country’s economy.

Many households rely mostly on remittances from overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), so the loss of income due to the pandemic may be enough to pull families below the poverty line. According to a policy brief by the Ateneo de Manila University Department of Economics, an OFW household relies on remittances for 43 percent of its total income and the large majority of OFWs in the lower income groups are women, mostly domestic workers or those working in sales and services.

According to data   from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), the global displacement of OFWs reached the level of 182,401 in June 2020 with 78 percent of displaced workers (141,895) coming from the Middle East while other displacements were in Europe (20, 348, 11.1 percent) and in the United States (8,790, 4.8 percent.) Displacement may not necessarily lead to repatriation as it sometimes involves the adjustment in working hours or the reduction of benefits and conditions of work while allowing for OFWs to continue their residence in their host countries.

The pace of repatriation was also affected by the closure of Philippine airports to international travel and the suspension of all operations in the middle of June. The country eventually allowed a limited quota of travellers – 1,200 in early July – to ensure the availability of testing equipment and quarantine facilities.

According to the Philippine Department of Health, as of the first week of August, a total of 221, 275 returning overseas Filipinos (ROF) have arrived in the country since the pandemic hit. Of this number, 4,831 have tested positive for COVID-19 with 574 still In hospital, 4,113 who have recovered, and five who have died. The Department of Health likewise recorded a total of 1,796 Filipinos remaining abroad who are also infected by the virus.

The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) has been providing aid to returning Filipino workers displaced by the pandemic. Among the department’s programmes is the About Kamay ang Pagtulong (AKAP) (translated: “Helping Hand”) programme which saw each OFW given a one-time cash assistance of US$ 200 (P10,000.) The DOLE has a budget of USD half a billion to finance this programme which is expected to benefit 250,000 workers.

In early June, the government started a programme called “Back to the Province” which offers money and other incentives for families that agree to leave Manila to reduce overcrowding.

The Philippines’ national Commission on Human Rights (CHR) appealed to the government to set up a justice mechanism for those Filipino migrant workers who were not properly compensated before their repatriation due to the crisis, making e the following recommendations:

Funds must be set up at the national level, and contributions to them could be ensured by the government, private contributions, business, and philanthropic foundations…

Funds advanced by the government could be later recouped from employers and businesses who were involved in wage-theft. This approach would ensure that migrant workers are paid their dues without delay and that their cases are resolved swiftly.”

 While the full extent of the socio-economic impact of the loss of overseas jobs and the return of thousands of workers to the country remains to be seen, there are some key areas that need to be addressed. First is the organised return of all migrant workers including the provision of humanitarian assistance and the establishment of health and safety protocols. The returned workers will need to be provided with local employment opportunities to sustain their livelihood. Social protection of displaced workers must be made a priority within the country and finally, social protection must be extended to those workers who will continue to be employed abroad.

The Philippines is just one example of a country that has been severely impacted by the plight of its migrant workers. The national economy will need to take great strides to adjust to the evolving effects of the pandemic on its labour force.

Host country horrors

When the crisis first hit, many migrant workers immediately faced a number of serious social and economic problems in their host countries. While some were new problems that came about specifically from the pandemic, others were pre-existing issues that were further exacerbated by the virus.

According to a study conducted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) into the impacts of COVID-19 on migrant workers in ASEAN, challenges include job loss, reduced wages, health and safety concerns, violence and harassment, lack of social security, and various labour rights violations. Migrants have been compelled to work against their will, and have been threatened with contract termination. In some cases, employers would even withhold the workers’ travel documents, rendering them incapable of leaving. Domestic workers, and women in particular, became more vulnerable to violence and attacks in their working environment. The ILO study also found that workers who were confined with their employers were subject to greater abuse.

These domestic workers likewise faced the challenge of a higher workload despite reduced wages. In many cases, as all the members of an employer’s family were at home during lockdown, they demanded more services from their domestic helpers.

Moreover, an ILO-UN Women study revealed that 50% of employers in destinations for ASEAN migrant workers do not allow domestic workers to access their mobile phones. These migrants are effectively cut off from family, trade unions, or service providers who might help them if they suffer violence and abuse.

Migrant workers and refugees often became the targets for groups who believed they were spreading the virus, often  facing stigmatisation  and being subjected to verbal and physical assaults and other forms of discrimination. A notable incident involved a widely-known Kuwaiti actress callously calling for the government to “send the [expatriates] out and put them in the desert” so that there would be more room in hospitals for citizens infected with the virus.

In response to these trends, UN Secretary-General António Guterres advocated greater tolerance, saying: “We must act now to strengthen the immunity of our societies against the virus of hate.”

The rough road home

The migrant workers who managed to find their way back to their home countries were often confronted with a new wave of setbacks and challenges. Firstly, border closures early in the crisis prevented many from traveling. In some cases, there were also regional restrictions of movement, preventing people from traveling to their home places once they had arrived safely home.

Most land borders within ASEAN countries were fully or partially closed at the end of March or early April.  After crossing the border, many returnees have been subject to strict quarantine measures, often in state-run centers for from seven to twenty-one days. For example, in April, the Philippine government imposed a mandatory COVID-19 testing and a 14-day facility-based quarantine for all Filipinos returning to the country, with the government covering expenses of testing for returnees, and with the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) 110 quarantine facilities in Manila and nearby provinces.

According to the ILO survey,  returnees often experienced major problems during the quarantine, including shortages of food, serious discomfort in the quarantine centers, often with no fans or air conditioning despite high temperatures, crowded sleeping areas, and generally unsanitary living conditions. Others reported suffering from feeling of exclusion, isolation, depression, sleep difficulties, and other mental health-related problems.

Excluded from aid

Many migrant workers do not quite fit in anywhere and are  excluded from the aid that citizens are entitled to in times of calamity. The Middle East, and the Gulf states in particular, employ the highest proportion of migrant workers in the world. In countries like the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait, migrants even outnumber the national population. Saudi Arabia, which has the most foreign workers, has 12 million in comparison with its national population of 20 million.

While nationals of the Middle East have been relatively protected from the worst effects of the crisis, the majority of those struck down by the virus have been the migrant workers. While Gulf governments provided billions of dollars in stimulus packages to help their citizens, no direct financial relief has been provided to the huge numbers of migrantson which these countries rely.

The crisis has put the issue of migrant rights, discrimination and inequality to the forefront. The issue is not simply to protect one vulnerable sector but to protect society as a whole, something that can only be achieved if the most vulnerable are also taken care of. If one group of people is at risk, they pose a risk to all. Everyone deserves to be protected.

Other ASEAN responses

In the ASEAN region, the contrasting approaches of two member states to the treatment of migrant populations is worth noting.

While Singapore was initially poised to be a success story because of its swift implementation of safety measures for its citizens, the pandemic also exposed the glaring inequality in its treatment of migrant workers. In mid-March, a second wave of coronavirus infections swept through the country, including  the dormitories of migrant workers which living were in deplorable conditions. According to Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower, 1.4 million of the city-state’s 5.8 million workers are migrant workers and these accounted for 85 percent of its total COVID-19 cases   by the end of April.

Vietnam, on the other hand, continues to be a true success story in COVID-19 response. To   date the country has less than 1000 confirmed cases and only recorded its first death in July. Having learned from its experience with SARS and avian influenza, the country adopted meticulous tracing mechanisms and launched a transparent and proactive public health campaign. The Vietnamese government was among the first Asian countries to implement travel restrictions and lockdowns. The government also developed two apps where people could record their health status and symptoms and this allowed for the reporting of movement or return of migrant workers from abroad or within Vietnam’s borders. Vietnam imposed decisive and transparent measures on its migration policy and even provided “rice ATMs” to provide food for the unemployed. Including migrant workers in their overall COVID-19 strategy has been instrumental in Vietnam’s success in containing the spread of the virus and protecting its population.

Inclusion imperative

The pandemic has exposed the degree of the world’s interconnectedness and the necessity of coming up with a response that will be inclusive and effective. All sectors of society must be taken into consideration if the world is to survive this crisis.

The narrative that certain groups, like migrant workers, are separate from the rest of society, can no longer be countenanced. Including migrant workers in recovery programmes is key to ensuring the health and safety of all.

The crisis has revealed the inequalities faced by migrant workers globally, and also presents an opportunity for structural change. Migrant workers must have access to healthcare, adequate housing, social security, and just working conditions.

The   ILO recommends that all governments should consistently and systematically include migrant workers in their COVID-19 responses. They must also pay particular attention to women migrant workers who are increasingly at risk of violence in lockdown and quarantine. Essentially, migrant workers should be entitled to the same social and economic protections as nationals because they are all members of the same society and COVID-19 does not distinguish between nationals and migrants.