COVID-19 and Migrant Worker Communities
The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating to many countries and communities worldwide. However, it is unfortunate that it takes a pandemic to reveal the deep-rooted inequalities that cause much suffering to disadvantaged communities. In particular, one often overlooked group is migrant workers that work in both domestic and international settings.
The Initial Lockdowns
With the introduction of nation-wide lockdowns , many of these migrant workers have lost their jobs and direct sources of income overnight. This is especially true in many developing countries or countries that rely heavily on a migrant worker population for reduced labor costs. Many of these workers live in poor living conditions such as cramped dormitories with no room for social distancing.
Some migrant workers have been forced by employers to take unpaid leave, reduced wages, or to go back home with no alternative work options. Many workers struggle with the choice to return home during these current circumstances or remain stranded in cities without access to services or support. Furthermore, they may face discrimination in their host countries, or if they decide to return home they may be discriminated against as suspected virus carriers. To make matters worse, many workers have also taken up debt from paying recruitment fees to agencies to secure their jobs overseas, while still being expected to send money back home daily to their families.
There are multiple examples of these circumstances across the world. In India, an immediate lockdown caused a mass migration of these workers, forcing them to walk for miles for transportation or to return home. People in countries such as the Philippines, Nepal, and Indonesia were either forced to arrange for an expensive return home or remain stranded with little support in countries with outbreaks, such as Singapore and Qatar. Nepali migrant workers were stuck at the Karnali border without basic amenities as the provincial government wanted to test them all before letting them in. The list goes on.
Developed countries are not spared from this as well. In many Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries (OECD), studies  found that the infection risk amongst migrant workers is at least twice as high as that of the native-born citizens. This can be attributed to issues of higher incidence of poverty, overcrowded housing, and jobs where physical distancing is difficult. The situation is even worse in developing countries where the industry is usually informal, less regulated with worker rights.
In the aftermath, migrant workers often lack access to basic healthcare needs and are unaware of their rights when compared to the average citizen. Often language barriers, cultural differences, and the lack of internet services make it difficult for information dissemination amongst the community. Other than physical sickness, mental health is equally if not more compromised for these groups. A study conducted in India saw increases in severe anxiety and depressive symptoms amongst migrant workers that were living in government shelter homes and unable to work or return home.
Some countries across Southeast Asia and the Gulf States have tried to provide for migrant workers during the crisis but in many cases, the lack of sufficient regulation and leadership has caused outbreaks in such communities.
Even in developed countries, such as Singapore , a major explosion in COVID-19 cases was seen within these worker dormitories due to the cramped living conditions and shared facilities. The government did not foresee the explosion in cases from migrant worker dormitories and it caused a breakout amongst the population, leaking into the community as a result. Many countries also saw an increase in aid provided by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to help these individuals through these current circumstances. Particularly in the UAE , some companies did not comply with government regulations to feed their employees stuck in self-isolation, causing many workers to be left without food. This prompted the need for NGOs to step in to feed and provide for them. These are just a few examples that showcase the vulnerability of such communities to outbreaks and the need for more awareness, regulation, and assistance from leaders.
So what can we do to prevent this? In developing countries (and even in some OECD countries), more campaigning needs to be done to persuade countries to adopt treaties such as the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. Many countries in the Middle East and in Asia have not adopted such treaties but in doing so could lead to better support for migrant worker communities during a future outbreak.
Countries could also strive to implement more rigorous control over migrant worker rights, increase information and healthcare access, and ensure better living and working conditions. If governments are unable to fill the gaps, especially in informal markets, communities and NGOs should definitely step up to try and cater specifically to the medical and social needs of migrant communities. This would help support the numerous migrant worker communities and highlight these issues to advocate for policy change.
More about the Author: Daniel Tan
Daniel Tan is a third year medical student at St Edmund’s College. He is interested in supporting disadvantaged groups especially from a medical perspective and looking at ways to improve healthcare for them.