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Migrant workers in the Covid-19 pandemic

by Eva-Maria Egger, Kunal Sen

Millions of migrant workers around the world provide valuable income for their families and contribute more broadly to the economies of both their home and host countries. Now, as a result of border closures and widespread lockdowns, many are unable to take shelter, to go home, or to report for work. As this column explains, finding solutions to the issues facing migrant workers during the Covid-19 pandemic is imperative.

As the global Covid-19 crisis unfolds, the measures to contain the novel coronavirus are also being felt by migrant workers across the world, who are trying to make their way back home or unable to travel to work. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that in 2017 there were 164 million migrant workers – people who had left their home countries in search of work globally in farms, healthcare systems, and much more.

For example, Guatemalans make up a significant part of Canada’s seasonal agricultural workforce, and countries like Germany rely heavily on migrant workers for planting and harvesting activities. In South Africa too, workers from Southern and Eastern Africa are likely to occupy many of the lower-paid jobs.

The ILO estimate does not include migrants working within their own countries: for example, in India alone, millions of people from rural areas work in the cities to be able to care for their families. These migrant workers work as casual labour on daily wages, mostly on construction sites around the country, to meet the voracious demand for real estate by the middle class and the rich.

Implications of border closures and lockdowns for migrant workers

In many countries, the borders are now closed to non-residents in a bid to curb Covid-19 transmission and limit the number of imported cases. National lockdowns are being announced around the world. This affects migrant workers in different ways.

First, loss of income and returning home can mean a move back to abject poverty for workers as well as their families – remittances sent by migrants are a vital economic lifeline for millions of families trying to make ends meet. The World Bank expected remittance flows to low- and middle-income countries in 2019 to have reached $550 billion, making them the largest source of external financing. While the sums of money transferred as internal remittances are on average smaller, these are the ones that tend to reach more households and poorer people.

Studies of past economic crises in major migrant destinations have shown how remittances drop and migrant families need to seek alternative income sources. Those sources might not be available if migrants’ home countries are also being struck by the crisis.

Second, a challenging situation can be made even more difficult by migrants’ legal status and the conditions under which they work. Workers often live in crowded accommodation, where they can be exposed to the virus. Informal or irregular migrants especially often lack access to healthcare or insurance: many live in fear of falling ill without the support provided by family and kin.

As India announced the nationwide lockdown, many migrant workers flocked to the trains leaving the cities for the villages, choosing travel over the insecurity and financial burden of having to pay for rent or food as work opportunities and transport links were grinding to a halt.

What is to be done?

The answers to these challenges as well as to the longer-term problems facing economies worldwide lie in lifting travel bans for migrant workers with seasonal work visas and in implementing measures that effectively protect workers from Covid-19 while containing its spread.

Host countries and local authorities should look at providing access to safe accommodation that would allow migrant workers to be able to self-isolate. Access to healthcare services and insurance in case of illness, as well as to basic income support, should also be guaranteed. Portugal recently set an example by providing migrants with full citizenship rights for the period of the Covid-19 crisis.

While lockdowns may be necessary in some areas, policy-makers must also consider alternatives that would not lead to the working poor (of whom many are internal migrants) being deprived of their livelihoods for prolonged periods. For example, mass testing of the working-age population could speed up the return to work of those who have already developed immunity to the virus.

Other immediate actions include sharing information about Covid-19 in the most commonly spoken languages among migrants. Partnering with migrant recruitment agencies can be key to the success of such campaigns, as these agencies usually have direct contact with migrants and know their situation and needs.

Basic rights for migrant workers

The Covid-19 crisis highlights once more the vulnerability of migrant workers to informal contracts, exploitative employers, unsafe work conditions, and restricted access to basic services. The campaign for basic rights for migrant workers must continue to ensure that no one is left behind.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.

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