Migrant workers

Pandemic realities for Asia-Pacific’s 48 million international migrants

There are some 48.4 million international migrants in the Asia-Pacific, the majority of whom are migrant workers. Millions more migrants from Asia are working in the Arab States. Nilim Baruah, Regional Migration Specialist for Asia and the Pacific at the International Labour Organization, highlights the grave impacts of the pandemic for migrant workers and steps needed to ‘build back better’.

News | 19 May 2021
Migrant workers awaiting relief during COVID-19 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. © UN Women

Why have migrant workers been hit so hard by COVID-19?

Firstly, exposure in the workplace, as many migrant workers are concentrated in essential occupations, they have had to continue working during the pandemic. There have been examples of poor social distancing in enterprises and insufficient personal protection equipment provided. Migrant workers are also put at increased risk of infection due to substandard and crowded accommodation. For example, 90 per cent of infections in Singapore in August 2020 were from migrant workers’ dormitories.

There has also been differential treatment in many countries of destination between nationals and migrant workers when it came to social protection, COVID-19 relief and income support. For example, in countries such as Australia and New Zealand where the majority of migrant workers from the Pacific Islands are in seasonal work and therefore do not qualify for unemployment insurance. The same is true for most of South East Asia as well, where migrant workers did not receive any income support or unemployment insurance.

Women migrant workers have been disproportionately affected, especially domestic workers who are  often not covered by labour laws, where they have lost their jobs and have found themselves  without shelter. There have also been cases of undocumented migrant workers being detained in crowded and unsafe conditions.

What are the impacts of COVID-19 restrictions and border closures on economies in the region?

One of the major impacts has been the fall in remittances  or money sent home by migrants. The World Bank has provisionally estimated a 7.4 per cent decline in remittances to Asia in 2020. In countries such as Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines and Samoa and Tonga in the Pacific, where remittances are high as a share of GDP, the consequences are significant. Falls in remittances have a  profound impact at family level for income and expenditure.

From ILO – OECD – ADB report ‘Labour migration in Asia: Impacts of the COVID-19 crisis and the post-pandemic future’.
There have been a lot of returns from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to the Asia-Pacific. As of the beginning of April 2021, around 500,000 overseas Filipino workers had returned, with numbers as high as 3 million repatriated nationals in India (by November 2020). Countries have been struggling with quarantine costs and reintegration of returnees.

This has led to concerns of labour and skill shortages. Migrant workers are in demand in countries of destination, but currently due to the pandemic, the deployment has fallen and there are added costs of quarantine and testing. Looking ahead, vaccine rollout will be key to ensuring labour migration resumes safely.

Has COVID-19 made pre-existing structural problems more apparent in labour migration?

Migrant workers are paying taxes and contributing to the economy, so it is only fair that they are treated the same way as others during a crisis."

Nilim Baruah, Regional Migration Specialist for Asia and the Pacific, ILO
The pandemic has magnified existing structural issues. In many Asian countries, as well as in the GCC, the (relatively) liberal entry migration model benefitted migrants, families and economies in which they worked. But migrants also experienced restricted rights and limited status.

In countries in Southeast Asia, the employment and working conditions of migrant workers tend to be the same as nationals, but migrants usually fill the difficult, often less paid, jobs. So you find that migrants, particularly women migrant workers, are among the lowest paid. Other areas such as poor accommodation and lack of unemployment insurance have existed before COVID-19, and have been amplified during the crisis.

Why is it so important that migrant workers are fully covered by COVID-19 response plans?

Migrant workers are paying taxes and contributing to the economy, so it is only fair that they are treated the same way as others during a crisis. In addition, countries have realised that there is an interdependence, when health aspects are concerned, the vulnerability of migrant workers during the pandemic can impact the population as a whole. This is why countries such as Malaysia and Singapore announcing that migrants will be treated the same as nationals in the vaccine rollout is very important.

Has COVID-19 rolled back on progress made for labour migration in the region?

It is true that in the pandemic migrant workers have been among the first to lose their jobs or receive reduced wages. Migration costs have also increased due to quarantine and testing requirements. Travel restrictions has drastically reduced deployment. However,    the pandemic has also highlighted certain issues which can lead to building back better through lessons learned and crisis experience. For example, in housing and accommodation, Malaysia has introduced new legislation on accommodation standards while Singapore has announced plans for much improved dormitories.

Providing care kits and prevention information for returning migrants at community quarantine centers. © ILO
There have been good practices such as trade unions and civil society organizations stepping up to provide humanitarian and health assistance to migrants during the pandemic. Similarly, the ILO development cooperation programme on labour migration pivoted to do the same in Myanmar where nearly 140,000 returning migrants and frontline workers at border crossings received assistance from our projects in 2020.

We also need to ensure that additional costs in line with public health measures are not passed on to workers. Work needs to be done on developing guidelines and protocols for migrant workers in the new normal so that they don’t bear the costs of quarantine and testing.

What needs to be done going forward for safe labour migration?

One result would be greater recognition of the contributions of migrant workers as essential workers, as caregivers, construction workers and the like. By doing so, lessons can be learned in respect to the need for adequate housing and interdependence of public health. As we see the vaccine rollout in some countries, non-discrimination and fair treatment towards migrant and undocumented workers will be crucial.

There’s still much to do with respect to building back better in regards of fair wages, social protection and treating domestic work as work. In the future, we also need to include migrant workers in emergency preparedness plans, so they are not overlooked.