Don't leave migrant workers behind

Don't leave migrant workers behind

In many regions, migrant workers make up a significant share of the labour force, making vital contributions to the societies and economies of their destination countries.

Critical sectors -- agriculture, fishery, food processing, construction, and even services -- rely on migrants, most of them in informal, low-paid jobs with limited access to state support in the countries where they reside.

The Covid-19 pandemic and its socio-economic fallout have exacerbated the vulnerability of migrant workers, especially women and youth. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 93% of the world's workers were residing in countries with some form of Covid-related workplace closures, with migrants among the most vulnerable.

In countries such as Thailand and Malaysia, migrants have been disproportionately affected. Thousands of Covid infections have been found in migrant worker communities that are overcrowded and unhygienic, making them a prime breeding ground for the virus.

As a result, many of these workers have not only lost their jobs and income but face discrimination when it comes to receiving medical treatment and other assistance.

In Thailand, for example, the government last month closed construction workers' camps until the end of July, confining migrants in congested conditions with limited access to medicine and food.

The Minister of Labour later decided to stop proactive Covid testing and healthcare assistance for migrant workers in Bangkok and surrounding provinces. As well, 2 million undocumented migrants are excluded from the national Covid vaccination programme and are not eligible for state cash handouts.

In Malaysia, migrants are facing similar obstacles, while raids, arrests and detention by authorities are deterring them from coming forward for testing, medical treatment or vaccinations. Such fear will only add to the risk of an increase in undetected infections that can affect all communities.

But if countries want to overcome the crisis and recover post-Covid, we should never forget that no one is safe until everybody is safe. Essential medical care must be provided to all without discrimination.

I'm glad to see some people with influence voicing their concerns. Among them is Mercy Barends, an Indonesian MP and a member of Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), who has called on governments across Asean to introduce inclusive measures to protect everyone.

"Government policies must ensure that they have equal access to immediate aid, testing, treatment, and vaccinations, without fear," she said.

Migrant workers, she said, must be eligible for social protections on an equal basis as the host country's citizens, with criteria for accessing essential services not based on nationality, citizenship or immigration status.

APHR also says migrants who have contracted Covid should be treated immediately and granted access to vaccinations in the same manner as citizens.

Ms Barends' comments were echoed by Teddy Baguilat, a former MP in the Philippines, who slammed government actions in Thailand and Malaysia as perpetuating the stigma against migrants.

"It is disgraceful that the governments of Thailand and Malaysia are contributing to divisive anti-migrant rhetoric, for what appears to be political gain at a time when they are coming under heavy criticism for their failure to contain the spread of the virus," he said.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) last Thursday launched a regional project that involves multiple stakeholders to enhance migrant worker protection. Funded by Sweden, the 18-month project is aimed at strengthening responses of policymakers, the private sector and civil society to better protect and provide assistance to migrant workers.

The IOM, in partnership with Migrant Forum in Asia, plans a series of regional and country-level interventions that will directly benefit migrant workers from seven countries of origin in South and Southeast Asia -- Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam -- and in three destination countries -- Hong Kong, Malaysia and Thailand.

To support the recovery post-Covid, measures that restrict labour mobility should be lifted. Current policies restrict migrants' economic freedom, for example, the ability to change employers, and are not the best strategy to maximise migrants' economic contributions.

The pandemic offers an opportunity for labour-receiving countries -- Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore and Thailand -- to liberalise their foreign worker policies. Greater labour mobility will also help deepen regional economic integration, creating more growth opportunities in all countries.

Equally important, improving citizens' attitudes in receiving countries toward migrant workers will certainly put the region on the path to maintaining its status as a trade and investment destination for the future.

Do you like the content of this article?