Migrant workers and Covid limbo

Migrant workers and Covid limbo

Among the most vulnerable groups affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, Asean's migrant workers find themselves living in limbo.

Losing jobs, being stranded and lacking access to health care and essential services, migrant workers are struggling to survive, especially as the spread of the Delta variant is prompting new restrictions on a global scale.

According to a policy brief recently released by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Asean region is projected to see 9.3 million fewer workers in employment in 2021 than expected in the absence of the pandemic, compared to 10.6 million fewer workers in 2020.

This year could also see working-hour losses of 7.4% while labour income losses sre affecting all countries in Asean. The Philippines has reported the return of 502,581 pandemic-hit overseas Filipino workers as of April 2021. The ILO's reports from Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar reveal that at least 260,000 migrant workers returned home by April 2020. In Vietnam, 19,600 civilians with the majority of them migrant workers were safely sent home on rescue flights between April and July 2020. Last year, 180,000 Indonesian migrant workers returned home with 75% facing unemployment.

Migrant workers are often the first to be laid off in times of economic crisis. About 700,000 migrant workers in Thailand, mostly in the tourism, services and construction industries, have lost their jobs because of the restrictions in 2020. The number is increasing significantly in 2021 as Thailand is trying to handle its worst outbreak. Poor, dense living conditions in most worker dormitories have exacerbated the risk of Covid-19 infections among migrant workers. Thousands of migrant workers in Malaysia and Singapore are now living in fear of another grim wave of Covid-19 infections in cramped dormitories, where social distancing is impossible.

More than one and half years into fighting against the pandemic, many countries have leaned heavily on migrant workers on the front lines to maintain daily services during restrictions. However, as the world is changing towards a socio-economic recovery from Covid-19, migrant workers find themselves again exposed to a greater risk of falling behind.

Recent research by McKinsey suggests that new trends accelerated by the pandemic may reshape the future of work after Covid-19. The post-pandemic world will see faster adoption of automation and AI, especially in work arenas with high physical proximity.

In a global survey of 800 senior executives conducted last year, two-thirds said they were stepping up investment in automation and AI as businesses prepared for a post-pandemic world. When the post-pandemic economy depends more on automation, it predicts that job growth in low-wage occupations will be low, and more than half of displaced low-wage workers will need to acquire new skills to be employed.

This will significantly affect migrant workers from Asean countries as most of them are low-skilled and undocumented ones working in the construction, agriculture, plantation, and domestic services. Moreover, mobility restrictions and economic recessions prompted by the pandemic have made it more difficult for migrant workers to access online learning or training programmes from distance. Migrant workers are also at risk of being left out when countries are racing to vaccinate their populations to reopen the economy.

Speaking at the opening of a three-day international conference on migration early this year, Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, a UN undersecretary general said, "Migrants will be crucial to the long-term recovery of countries and their contribution to our society must be recognised and valued," she added. "They must be included in vaccination programmes because … we are only safe when everyone is safe."

In July 2021, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) launched a regional project to enhance the protection of migrant workers in Asia impacted by Covid-19. A series of regional- and country-level interventions will be implemented to 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 at three countries of destination -- Hong Kong SAR (China), Malaysia and Thailand.

In order to respond to the skills changes due to Covid-19, effective training programmes towards the digital economy are critical. They require collaboration across a wide range of stakeholders, such as relevant ministries, employers, NGOs, unions, think tanks and academics, among many others, to make them accessible to migrant workers. Meanwhile, Southeast Asian lawmakers are urging governments for more inclusive policies that help strengthen the protection of migrant workers from discrimination.

The positive outcomes towards a fair deal for migrant workers in the global economy won't happen overnight or be precipitated by a single development. They need to be the gradual accumulation of collaborative efforts to protect one of the most vulnerable populations from any future global crisis where Covid-19 has only been the most recent one.


Yen Nguyen is a Communications Consultant for IOM's Corporate Responsibility in Eliminating Slavery and Trafficking (CREST) initiative in Asia. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of any organisations.

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