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Global: COVID-19 has hit migrant workers harder

The COVID-19 crisis has had a devastating impact on migrant workers all over the world, in particular those employed in precarious low-wage sectors, who were often the first to experience the economic shock of the pandemic, according a new report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Locked down and in limbo: The global impact of COVID-19 on migrant worker rights and recruitment reports that many migrant workers had their employment summarily suspended or terminated as the virus spread, or suffered a dramatic fall in income. Some were stranded due to lockdowns and border closures, while others were suddenly repatriated, without operational systems and protocols in place. In some instances, public health law was used to justify their expulsion.

The ILO is calling for migrant workers to be included in all COVID-related health and recovery packages and services. Specific recommendations in the report include the implementation of Occupational Safety and Health measures on the basis of equality of treatment with nationals, and ensuring protection from gender-based violence and harassment at work. The UN body also says policies should ensure migrant workers do not pay recruitment fees or related costs - including those related to personal protective equipment (PPE), testing, vaccination, vaccination certification and quarantine. ILO also calls for an increase in inspection and government oversight of recruitment practices and measures to ensure that recruitment associations disseminate information about health and safety protocols.

Australia is no exception when it comes to the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on migrant workers.

Matt Kunkel, CEO of the Migrant Workers Centre in Victoria, said the ILO report included important policy recommendations. It did not address, however, some issues specific to the Australian experience. In Australia, although the government implemented emergency packages for workers, these were only extended to workers with citizenship or permanent residency and backfired for many migrant workers on temporary visas. Businesses tried maximising their access to the emergency packages by replacing migrant workers with others who were eligible for the emergency packages. Mr Kunkel said, “As a result, 36 per cent of migrant workers on temporary visas lost jobs and 37 per cent experienced reduced income during the pandemic according to our own survey.”

The heightened racism against workers from Asian background was also a widely cited Australian experience that was not discussed in the report.

Further, a 2020 survey of over 2000 migrant workers on temporary visas conducted by the Migrant Worker Justice Initiative in NSW showed widespread job losses that for every category of migrant worker surveyed, job losses or large reductions in hours were experienced by over 50 per cent of migrants. This far outstrips the rate of job loss among Australian citizens and is the result of several factors. Temporary visa holders tend to be concentrated in industries that were hit hardest by the pandemic such as hospitality, retail, and commercial cleaning. These industries are also notorious for high rates of labour exploitation and wage theft, exacerbated by low rates of unionization among migrant workers in these industries. Additionally, there are limits on the number of hours that certain visa categories such as international students are legally allowed to work. Compounded by a lack of access to government support, this has condemned many migrant workers in Australia to poverty, homelessness, and unsustainable debt. Over a quarter of respondents reported being unable to afford food, including over 50 per cent of those seeking asylum. 

Read more: 

  • ILO news release and report, Locked down and in limbo: The global impact of COVID-19 on migrant worker rights and recruitment [pdf], November 2021. Source: Risks 1023 
  • MWC Report - Lives in Limbo: Navigating Australia’s Unsettling Migration System [pdf
  • Laurie Berg and Bassina Farbenblum, As if we weren’t humans: The abandonment of temporary migrants in Australia during COVID-19 [pdf] (MWJI, 2020)
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