COVID-19 places migrant workers in highly vulnerable situations 

Date: Mar 26, 2020
Location(s): Ho Chi Minh City

As the world confronts COVID-19 and Governments try to stop its spread, it is imperative that migrants - regardless of their migratory status - are included in efforts to stop the spread. And while the 164 million migrant workers globally are already vulnerable, the most vulnerable among them now face being hit hardest by the negative impacts in global communities, businesses and supply chains.

Migrant workers’ vulnerability often begins before employment, when labour recruiters charge excessive fees, provide misleading information about the job and offer unclear terms and conditions. These all-too-common practices place migrant workers in a precarious situation from the start. Then, when you add conditions including isolation, indecent accommodation, lack of understanding the local language and culture as well as the potential of debt-bondage, migrant workers’ vulnerabilities are further exacerbated. Now add a pandemic. In times, such as these where the world is trying to contain COVID-19, migrant workers are struggling to access healthcare. Sadly, if a migrant fears deportation, family separation or detention, they may well be less willing to access healthcare or provide information on their health status.  

Circumstances that increase migrant workers’ vulnerabilities during COVID-19 include:

Increased health risks for migrant workers 
Living in a country where migrant workers do not speak the local language means that they are unlikely to understand information materials disseminated by governments on how to behave in public and in the workplace. As experienced by a civil society organization, migrant workers are increasingly worried due to lack of knowledge and the fast spread of fake news. Ensuring information is available in all worker languages is a necessary prerequisite in making efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 inclusive. 

In addition to lack of information, migrant workers often live in  shared dormitories with shared bathrooms and lacking basic necessities, such as running water. Even in instances where migrant workers have received guidance on hygiene measures, these living conditions mean that it is difficult to follow and guarantee adequate hygiene standards. In one case, indecent living conditions is a suspected cause of 238 cases of COVID-19 infection in a single compound living without adequate hygiene facilities nor space for distancing measures. On top of this, the fear surrounding contracting COVID-19 can affect the mental health of migrant workers and has compelled many workers to return to their home, even when this means losing their job and income.

Furthermore, men and women migrant workers often find themselves in places where national health systems are already overstretched, and so they often have neither health insurance nor access to public health services. Coupled with unclear conditions in their employment contracts mean they are unlikely to see a doctor and be tested for COVID-19 infection. Finally, the fact that where migrant workers are excluded from social protection and are without paid sick leave means they risk returning to the workplace even where other workers are infected or they themselves are suspected of being infected.

Increased job insecurity 
As factories close after drops in demand, mass lay-offs are already reported across Asia, and the ILO predicts millions more losing their jobs as an effect of COVID-19 globally. With their already precarious conditions, migrant workers are at risk of being the first ones to go.  

This includes 40 million garment workers who risk losing their jobs as orders go down and supply of raw materials cannot be delivered, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign. Many of these workers are likely to be migrant workers, who are often not covered by national labour laws and protections, or not aware of their rights. 

Where employers are able to retain their migrant workforce, they can soon be in a situation where they cannot afford to pay the wages due to drops in global demand. Migrant workers typically rely on overtime to be able to support families in their country of origin, and the lack of overtime, reduced working hours and reduced wages make them unable to send back remittances to families or to afford basic needs for survival. As described by a  migrant worker “My work hours have been reduced, and I cannot do overtime anymore, I just earn my basic salary. But I am luckier than others who have been asked to stay home”.

Many migrant workers must take out loans in their home countries to pay for their recruitment fees and related costs. It can take months or even years to repay the loans and the loss of income through early termination of contracts or non-payment of wages can be devastating for indebted migrant workers and their families. 

This risk of job loss and reduced wages places increased pressure on migrant workers to find alternative employment, often in the informal economy where rights and benefits are virtually non-existent. 

How restricted travel affects migrant workers
In addition to possibly losing their job, migrant workers risk losing their right to stay in the country of employment as visas and work permits are often linked to their specific employment. This means that in cases where employers do not pay for the migrant’s safe return, and the migrant worker cannot afford the sudden return themselves, there is a significant risk that they become undocumented by overstaying their visa. In these instances, the migrant finds themselves in an irregular situation without rights and protections as well as the fear of arrest, detention and deportation.

The closing of national borders causing delays or cancellations of travel also impact migrant workers already selected and on the path to employment, but not yet in the country of destination. Migrant workers already selected are typically required to travel from their home to a temporary location such as a capital city or major urban centre. At this point, workers will typically already have paid recruitment fees placing them in a possible situation of debt bondage, forcing them to find alternative solutions to repay the debts and to make their ways back home. 

This is the situation for migrants workers waiting to board airplanes to their destination countries, who are now banned from doing so due to closed borders. After a full selection and pre-employment trainings process, these migrant workers have suddenly lost their expected income.

The travel bans also impact migrant workers whose work permit or visa is about to expire, and who may not be able to extend the permit nor travel home. Or migrant workers who have been home to care for family members and are now trapped in countries of origin. This applies for instance to a female domestic migrant worker who is unable to return to her place of employment within the timeframe of the agreed leave arrangement, and therefore risks losing her job. 

Migrant domestic workers 
As a group, migrant domestic workers are rarely covered by labour law, leaving them without the associated assistance and protection mechanisms. Additionally, these workers are usually women who are already facing gender imbalances in culture and workspace, and they often live in the homes of their employers. These dynamics make migrant domestic workers highly vulnerable and practically hidden from the public eye, essentially placing them in a position where they may be unable to leave an abusive employer or to even seek help. 

The isolation stemming from living and working in their employers’ homes means that migrant domestic workers are vulnerable even in times of good health. But since the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic, working and living conditions have taken an extra toll on domestic workers. A recent survey among domestic migrant workers shows that more than half of respondents claim to have had to work more hours during COVID-19 pandemic, without extra pay or leave compensation. The women migrant workers say that since the advice is to not leave their homes – which are shared with their employers - they are unable to refuse to work on their weekly day off. In addition, when they are not able to leave their workplaces, they lose valuable access to social networks, support and information on what to do.

Action required from brands, employers, recruiters and governments
All actors must cooperate to contain COVID-19 and minimise the social, health and economic impact on vulnerable groups. But brands and employers must be aware of the increased vulnerabilities of migrant workers in their supply chains, businesses and communities. This is particularly imperative in those workplaces where ethical recruitment is not a reality. In a situation where migrant workers incurred significant debts or lodged deposits, workers might not be able to refuse excessive overtime, may have to endure degrading living and working conditions and cannot walk away from the employers. Covid-19 heightens all of these risks and adds increased risk of visa overstay or losing jobs. 

Brands, employers, recruiters and governments have a responsibility to act on these vulnerabilities and ensure that national systems and plans to address and contain COVID-19 include migrant workers and take their particular situation into account. COVID-19 does not discriminate, neither should the response

Some actions for brands, employers and recruiters include:

  • Strengthen communication on COVID-19 guidance in migrant workers’ languages and through migrant communities 
  • Ensure access to and availability of health care and personal protective equipment
  • Ensuring decent and hygienic working and living conditions and appropriate measures for social distancing and self-isolation
  • Ease economic burden for workers, including migrant workers, by ensuring they are covered by social protection measures. This includes paid sick leave and reimbursement of recruitment fees and related costs paid by migrant workers
  • Consider flexible arrangements for migrant workers in situations where employment sites have to close
  • Ensure overtime is on a voluntary basis and compensated at a premium rate
  • The employer should take affirmative action to promote migrant workers’ freedom of movement. Employers have a responsibility to let the worker return home voluntarily and to provide direct access to identity and travel documents at any time
  • Work with authorities in countries of origin and destination to find solutions for migrant workers that are unable to return home due to travel restrictions
  • Develop contingency planning
  • Set up a mechanism for burden sharing between brands and suppliers to incentivize protection measures for migrant workers

        

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